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Anti-riot and police defunding bill moves in House subcommittee

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Cord Byrd

Rep. Cord Byrd

Freedom of speech got a minute at the January 28 meeting of the Florida House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee.

The subcommittee had allotted two hours for the presentation, member questions, public testimony, debate, and then a vote on HB 1, titled Combatting Public Disorder. The legislation stemmed from a Gov. Ron DeSantis press conference, attended by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, last September 21 calling for tougher laws following protests that swept the country and the state following the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police.

The subcommittee ultimately passed the bill 11-6.

At least 70 people signed up to testify, which led subcommittee Chair Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville Beach, to announce that speakers would be limited to one minute each.

Some who signed up didn’t step up when called, but most did. Byrd recounted that two of those no-shows supported the bill. Two speakers also supported the bill. Byrd did not announce the preference of a few of the no-shows, but most of those opposed the bill as did the rest of the dozens of speakers.

Most of the commenters said the bill would inhibit free speech, the right to peaceably protest, would inequitably be enforced against minorities, and that the Legislature had more pressing priorities including fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

HB 1, according to Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, one of the bill sponsors who presented the measure to the subcommittee, is intended to dissuade people from acting violently in mobs when it is easier to forget individual responsibility.

“I’m a fan of the First Amendment and there is a thin line between the First Amendment and violence, and when violence begins, that is where the protection of the First Amendment ends,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

Among the bill’s provisions:

• People arrested as part of a riot would be unable to immediately bond out and would have to wait for a first appearance before a judge.

• Battery of a police officer during a riot would carry a mandatory six-month sentence.

• A new crime of mob intimidation would be created and defined, according to the explanation of the bill, as a mob “forcefully compelling or attempting to compel another person to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.”

• A new crime would be established to prevent “defacing, damaging or destroying a monument.”

• Creating new crimes with enhanced penalties for “aggravated rioting and aggravated inciting a riot.”

• Creating a new crime for cyber intimidation, including by publishing a person’s address or other personal information with the intent of intimidating them.

• Making it harder for local governments to cut police budgets by creating a process where citizens can challenge such reductions.

• Lifting sovereign immunity protections for municipalities on damage claims if the municipality interfered with the ability of police to provide reasonable protections.

• Tightening restrictions for obstructing roadways and creating an affirmative defense in a tort action if the plaintiff’s injuries were caused while participating in a riot or unlawful assembly.

Aggravated riot, Fernandez-Barquin said, would be an assembly of nine or more people in an unlawful activity where there is “significant property damage, a deadly weapon, or injury to a person.”

Punishment would be up to 15 years in prison.

Rep. Michael Grieco

Rep. Michael Grieco

Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, asked if he and other peaceful protesters would face arrest under the law if one more protester showed up and became disruptive or violent.

“That makes me a rioter even though I was peacefully protesting,” he said. “Is there a possibility I could be arrested for rioting as the result of the way this bill is drafted?”

“I do not believe so,” Fernandez-Barquin replied.

Grieco also asked if the bill could prevent local government from adjusting police salaries and benefits, and Fernandez-Barquin said he was discussing that issue with the Florida League of Cities.

In response to other questions, Fernandez-Barquin said rioters who broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 would face enhanced penalties under HB 1 if that were to happen in Florida, and anyone in that assembly who threatened use of force against innocent bystanders also would be guilty of unlawful intimidation.

Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Ft. Lauderdale, said the bill would not help the nation overcome its divisions.

“The nation is divided and as state legislators we should try to find a way to bring our nation together and this bill is not doing it,” she said. “This bill will give law enforcement officers the ability to misuse their authority.”

Referring to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, she added, “If that group of people were black and brown, we would still be picking up body bags.”

“I’m of the opinion our job is to fix something that is broken or improve something that can be better. Today does neither,” Grieco said. “This bill does not put food in anyone’s mouth, vaccines in people’s arms, or money in anyone’s pockets….

“I was recently asked how we could make this bill better. You can shred it. I’d like to forget about this bill and how it would trample on the basic right of Floridians.”

Rep. Dianne Hart

Rep. Dianne Hart

“I believe this law would disproportionately hurt communities of color trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa. “This gives bad actors in law enforcement and the criminal justice system additional weapons to harm, incarcerate, and kill black and brown Floridians.

“….I believe law enforcement has tools in place to punish wrongdoers already and there’s no demonstrated need for these changes.”

“What makes us so special in this country is we are a land of law and we are a land of order,” said Rep. John Snyder, R-Hobe Sound, in support of the bill. “There is a very fine line between peaceful protest and the right to assembly and violence and rioting, and it is when you cross that line that you pay the penalty and you go to jail. For that reason, I support this bill.”

Byrd said HB 1 carries out the findings of the U.S. Supreme Court in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Company, 458 U.S 886 (1982). In that opinion, the Supreme Court said individuals could not be held liable for economic damages that came about from activities that were protected by the First Amendment, in this case advocacy of a boycott by Black residents of White-owned businesses in a Mississippi town.

Quoting from that opinion, Byrd said, “The First Amendment does not protect violence…and the use of weapons, gunpowder, and gasoline may not constitutionally masquerade under the guise of advocacy.”

Fighting words or those that provoke immediate violence or panic are also not protected, he said.

“When I hear that these acts that occurred over the summer and in Washington, D.C., have consequences, they do. People’s lives were ruined, their businesses destroyed, their lives taken,” Byrd continued. “The purpose of this bill is to prevent lawlessness, not protected First Amendment speech.”

Most of the speakers disagreed.

Phillip Baber, pastor of the People’s Church of Jacksonville and regional director for the Poor People’s Campaign of Northeast Florida, said the bill would suppress basic rights and be used disproportionately against Black Floridians.

He called the bill “an insultingly transparent attempt to silence political enemies” and “a political stunt.”

“To us in the Black community, it feels real Jim Crowish, it seems like a way to increase mass incarceration since we can’t lock people up for life for marijuana anymore,” said Arlinda Johns, executive director of Dignity Power, Inc. “HB 1 was written in response to people asking you not to kill us.”

Ingrid Delgado, representing the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bill could be used to arrest protesters outside abortion clinics who attempt to dissuade women from going in or who protest death penalty executions. She echoed other speakers that many terms are not well defined in the bill.

“I can tell you this is a horrible bill. It’s very complex. It criminalizes participants in an event where other people do things,” said Tallahassee lawyer William Davis. “It’s going to involve people with unintended consequences that will ruin their lives and you will be responsible. The common law [already] addresses all of your concerns.”

HB 1 next goes to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee and then the Judiciary Committee. The subcommittee’s staff analysis of the bill is here.

The Senate counterpart, SB 484  has been referred to the Criminal Justice Committee, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and the Appropriations Committee. It has not yet been placed on a committee agenda.

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