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Florida Passes Anti-Rioting Legislation with Other States Soon to Follow

Within hours of Governor Ron DeSantis signing the “Combating Public Disorder Act” into law, volunteers for the Black Collective, a non-profit civil rights group, got to work, canvassing, through neighborhoods, alerting people of the new legislation. 

The bill, HB1, touted by DeSantis as “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country,’’ was made a priority by his administration after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. However, according to Francesca Menes, co-founder of Black Collective, HB1 presents challenges. As she explained to the Florida Phoenix, the signing of the new bill on April 20 ushered in a “harsh, new reality” for those who wanted to exercise their right to protest. 

NEW YORK CITY, USA - JUNE 12, 2020: Crowd of people walk into the light of sunset at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march on 14th Street in Manhattan.

Her group believed going door-to-door, sharing what the new bill includes was necessary to ensure people understood the new risks associated with protesting. “What’s new,” she said, “is that crimes are defined so broadly in the new bill that peaceful protesters will be treated much the same as violent ones.”

HB1 is DeSantis’s sweeping anti-protest legislation more than six months in the making. It gives more protection to local law enforcement, imposes more infractions on accused rioters, and allows more immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars. 

It was back on September 23, 2020, after a summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests across the country, that DeSantis first announced his intention to move HB1 forward. At a press conference inside the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the governor said, “As Americans, we have a right to peacefully assemble but engaging in mob violence will not be tolerated in the state of Florida.’’

The bill moved through Tallahassee swiftly, and on April 15, the Florida Senate gave it final approval by a vote of 23-17. It includes the following:

  • A revision of the definition of a riot (a third-degree felony) to include the assembly of three or more people willfully participating in a violent public disturbance “…acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in (a) Injury to another person; (b) Damage to property; or (c) Imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property.”
  • It makes destroying “…a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure or other object that commemorates historical people or events’’ a second-degree felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison. 
  • It now requires law enforcement to hold arrested protesters until a first court appearance.
  • It calls for a mandatory six-month prison sentence for anyone convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer during a protest and for fines and possibly up to five years behind bars for anyone convicted of causing harm to a law enforcement officer or damaging property.
  • It creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting’’ that carries a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison.
  • Local officials in Florida will be held liable for lawsuits from injured parties if they are found to have not done enough to “control violent protests.” 
  • It gives law officials the authority to appeal to the governor and his cabinet any decision by local officials attempting to reduce funding to law enforcement.

Reaction to the new bill, which was signed on the day Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three counts for the death of George Floyd, was quick and rippled across the Sunshine State. While he was applauded by fellow Republicans and members of law enforcement, criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups was far-reaching. 

Kara Gross, the legislative director for the ACLU Florida, described the bill was created “….to instill fear in Floridians.’’ State Senator Shevrin Jones of Miami Lakes accused DeSantis of declaring “…war on the First Amendment in Florida.” Potential gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried said that DeSantis is not interested in getting to the bottom of racial injustice, rather, “just the opposite,’’ she said. “Governor, you’ve made it more dangerous for the people here in our state, who want to stand up against injustice, and make changes to society.’’

DeSantis is also now facing legal action. Attorneys in Orlando for Legacy Entertainment and Arts Foundation filed a federal lawsuit alleging the bill “violates First Amendment protections for free speech, Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment protections of due process.’’

Anti-Rioting Bills Happening In Other States

Florida has not been the only state focusing on anti-riot bills. In the last year, dozens of similar bills have been proposed across the country with several gaining strength.

Here is a list of look at the states who are currently finding the most support for GOP-led anti-riot legislation: 

Oklahoma: Republican lawmakers recently sent legislation to Gov. Kevin Stitt that would criminalize the unlawful blocking of a public street and grant immunity to drivers who strike and injure protesters during a riot. 

Iowa: Part of a law enforcement package proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds would strip local governments of state funding if cities and counties defund their law enforcement budgets.

Kentucky: State Senator Danny Carroll has already said he plans to refile a bill next year after seeing it failed in the statehouse the last session. The bill, first created after protests following the murder of Breonna Taylor, would make it a crime to insult or taunt a police officer with “offensive or derisive” words or gestures that would have “a direct tendency to provoke a violent response.” The measure would require that those arrested on such a charge be held in jail for at least 48 hours — a provision that does not automatically apply to those arrested on murder, rape or arson charges in Kentucky. The legislation died in the statehouse over bipartisan concerns about free speech.

Two states already had laws on the books that target protestors, Arkansas and Kansas. Both states created measures to target protestors who seek to disrupt oil pipelines.

Numerous other state and federal anti-protest laws are pending. To track the bills visit the International Center for Not-For-Profit-Law’s US Protest Law Tracker