TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Republican-controlled Florida House is ready to sign off on a controversial proposal that would create new crimes related to violent protests, enhance riot-related penalties and make it harder for local governments to pare police spending.
The far-reaching plan --- a top legislative priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis --- has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats, civil-rights organizations and First Amendment advocates, who decry the measure as antithetical to the foundations of American democracy.
DeSantis rolled out a framework for the law-and-order proposal in September, following nationwide protests that were focused on racial inequalities in policing.
House and Senate leaders released details of the legislation on Jan. 6, the same day that supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent attempt to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s November election victory.
State House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who is a former prosecutor, has fast-tracked the measure, which is scheduled for a Friday vote. The significance of the bill is highlighted by its demarcation as HB 1 and its consideration by the full House before the midpoint of the 60-day legislative session.
The bill proposes a host of changes to criminal and civil laws and would create new crimes, including "mob intimidation." The mob intimidation section would make it unlawful for three or more people "to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will."
The House on Thursday approved a handful of changes proposed by bill sponsor Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, such as a provision including the word "willfully" that he said was aimed at ensuring peaceful participants are not charged with crimes when protests become violent.
Under Fernandez-Barquin’s amendment, a person would commit a riot "if he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance" involving three or more people "acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct" that results in injury to another person, damage to property or "imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property."
"It’s simply not just someone standing around in a protest. This is an actually violent melee, violent disturbance of three or more people working in concert with each other to either injure someone or to commit property damage," Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami-Dade County Republican, said.
Florida largely escaped the protest-related violence and looting experienced in cities such as Portland following the death of George Floyd last summer. Floyd, a Black man, died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
During Thursday’s floor action, House Democrats argued that the 60-page bill goes too far and could criminalize civil disobedience that is embedded in the civil rights movement and that resulted in such freedoms as women’s suffrage.
"I don’t think this is good policy. I think it was hastily put together. I think it was based 100 percent on political red meat, and you don’t have to look further than when the original description of the bill was dropped weeks before a national election to drive turnout for one party over the other," Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, said.
But Fernandez-Barquin, a former assistant public defender, said the state must ensure that wrongdoers are punished.
"We really do need to discourage people from bad actions, from bad acts. The only way to do that is to pass laws and to have penalties and to have consequences for people’s actions," he said.
The bill would provide what is known as an "affirmative defense" to defendants in civil lawsuits involving deaths, injuries or property damage if the injuries or damages were sustained while the plaintiffs was participating in "furtherance of a riot."
But, pointing to situations in which people have intentionally driven into crowds gathered to protest, Democrats argued that affirmative-defense provision could lead to vigilantism. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, offered an amendment that would strip the language from the bill.
"I cannot think of any sound legal rationale for this affirmative defense, other than to say that we’re trying to pick winners and losers, and if you are a protester, you are a loser. And if you are a vigilante that decides to take matters into your own hands and put those, quote, protesters in their place, even if that means violence, you’re a winner. Not on my watch," Driskell, a lawyer, argued.
The Republican-dominated House rejected Driskell’s amendment, along with a handful of other amendments proposed by Democrats.
The bill addresses the destruction of "memorials," after statues of people associated with slavery were torn down or destroyed in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
The bill would create a new felony crime that prohibits people from defacing, damaging, destroying or pulling down a memorial or historic property if the damage is more than $200. The bill would require people convicted of the crimes to pay for restoration or replacement of the property.
A similar bill (SB 484) thus far has not received a hearing in the Senate, though Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has said he supports DeSantis on the issue.
The House bill is also designed to prevent local officials from slashing police spending, by allowing appeals of reductions to law-enforcement agencies’ operating budgets. State attorneys or local governing-body members who voted against the budget proposals would be allowed to file appeals, which would be decided by the governor and Cabinet.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s lone statewide elected Democrat, blasted the bill on social media Thursday.
"Regardless of the majority party’s intent to force this through, the people will not be silenced. Their voices will still speak truth to power, demanding justice and equity," she tweeted.