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Anti-riot bill clears second House panel

Senior Editor Top Stories
Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin

The second Florida House committee meeting on a proposed bill to toughen criminal penalties for rioting went about as the first.

Dozens of people showed up to speak against it and were given a minute or less each to testify because of time constraints on the meeting.

Backers called the bill necessary, while Democratic members blasted it as an infringement on civil rights. And in the end, the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on March 3 passed HB 1 on a party line vote, as the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee did just over a month ago.

Aside from increasing penalties – with imprisonment of up to 15 years – when protesters turn violent, damage property, or intentionally block roads, it waives sovereign immunity limits if businesses sue local governments that “intentionally interfere” with police providing adequate protection for those businesses, and allows any citizen to appeal to the state a local government’s decision to cut its law enforcement budget.

Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens, said while the bill would waive sovereign immunity limits for businesses claiming inadequate protection by police, it leaves them in place for people wrongfully injured by police.

“This bill hasn’t been thought out with regard to all of the unintended consequences,” Benjamin said. “Martin Luther King said riot is the language of the unheard; social progress and justice are the only guarantors against riot. We need to focus on social justice and progress because in them is the answer to riots, not HB 1.”

Rep. Anthony Sabatini

Rep. Anthony Sabatini

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Clermont, said he supported the overall bill, but questioned the portion allowing appeals to the governor and Cabinet if a local government cuts police budgets. That could inhibit reforms that could provide more efficient services at less costs, he said.

Rep. Michelle Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said the bill has unspecified costs, from the expense of providing public defenders and private conflict counsel for those arrested to the costs of incarcerating hundreds or potentially thousands of people who could be arrested under the law.

“What this bill proposes will cost billions of dollars and quite simply put is an unfunded mandate,” she said.

Rayner pointed to information presented by bill sponsor Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, that in 2020, despite protests around the state, only 72 people were arrested for rioting and of those, one was convicted and two had adjudication withheld. In 2019, there were 14 arrests and three convictions. She said the bill could potentially skyrocket those numbers.

Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Sunrise, called the bill a “knee-jerk reaction” to the 72 arrests and said HB 1 hurts “the ability to speak back against oppression and this bill is an oppressive measure to stop the people from speaking.”

“If you behave lawfully and peacefully, you have nothing to worry about, but if you participate in violence or commit a crime you must pay the penalty, even if it’s a burden on the lawful, taxpaying residents,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

Speakers said innocent, peaceful protesters could find themselves arrested if one person became violent or committed a crime, and said the law would be discriminatingly enforced against minorities. They also said it was overbroad with poor definitions and infringes on constitutional rights.

“Kill this bill before it kills us” was a common refrain from speakers.

“You all know this is a fascist and unconstitutional bill, right?” asked Manuel Paez. “…You should be ashamed of yourselves if you vote in favor of this bill. It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional, it’s disgusting.”

Kimberley Pullings, a minister, mother of six, and former police sergeant, said she has seen personally — as well as videoed — instances of police violating protesters’ civil rights and noted an increase in injuries of people in police custody.

“Why is this the first bill? Where are the bills to address the continuing civil rights violations by police?” she asked.

The bill ultimately passed 10-5, with all five subcommittee Democrats voting no. By a voice vote, the subcommittee rejected an amendment from Rep. Patricia H. Williams, D-Ft. Lauderdale, to delete the entire bill as drafted and instead create a Florida Commission of Combatting Public Disorder. The commission would study the causes and policing of public disorders and make recommendations to address those causes.

HB 1 next goes to the Judiciary Committee and then the House floor. 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 heard in committee.

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