Judge sides with activists, blocks enforcement of Florida’s ‘anti-riot’ law targeting violent protests

St. Petersburg, FL – A federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction in a case against Florida’s anti-riot law championed by the state’s Republican Governor as a way to control violent protests, saying it was unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

The 90-page decision Thursday by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee found the recently enacted law “vague and overbroad” and amounted to an assault on First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, as well as the Constitution’s due process protections.

People engaged in peaceful protest or who just happen to be in the same area when a demonstration turns violent could face criminal charges and stiff penalties under the law, the judge said.

“If this court does not enjoin the statute’s enforcement, the lawless actions of a few rogue individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians.

“It unfortunately takes only a handful of bad actors to transform a peaceful protest into a violent public disturbance.”

The lawsuit was filed against Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials by the NAACP Florida conference, Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, and other groups who argue the law appears specifically meant to halt protests by black people and other minorities.

The measure was passed earlier this year by a majority Republican Legislature and signed into law in April by the governor. 

The law was a reaction to demonstrations around the country following last year’s killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a black man, which vaulted Black Lives Matter into the national spotlight.

Attorneys representing the state argued before the court that the anti-riot law drew a clear line between peaceful protesters and violent rioters. The judge disagreed:

“Because it is unclear whether a person must share an intent to do violence and because it is unclear what it means to participate, the statute can plausibly be read to criminalize continuing to protest after violence occurs, even if the protestors are not involved in, and do not support, the violence.

“The statute can also be read to criminalize other expressive activity, like remaining at the scene of a protest turned violent to film the police reaction.”

Provisions in the law that upset Democrats grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road; prevent people arrested for rioting or offenses committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance; and impose a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot.

The law increases penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest. It allows authorities to detain arrested protesters until a first court appearance and establishes new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

The law also makes it a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to destroy or demolish a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure, or other object that commemorates historical people or events.

The law also requires that local governments justify any reductions in law enforcement budgets.

The law created the new crime of “mob intimidation,” defined as three or more people “acting with a common intent” forcing or threatening to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will, is created by the bill. It is punishable as a first-degree misdemeanor, and bail is denied until the first court appearance for anyone charged with the crime.

That provision was added in response to videos last summer of protesters of police violence menacing people eating at outdoor restaurants.

Following passage of the bill in the state Senate, Democratic lawmakers wore black shirts at a press conference. Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point said it was meant to signify their “mourning of the death of the First Amendment.”

DeSantis can appeal the ruling to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. DeSantis called the judge’s decision expected, and that the state will appeal:

“That’s a foreordained conclusion in front of that court. We will win that on appeal. I guarantee we’ll win that on appeal.”

The Governor, known for his stands against the liberal agenda, said that his administration has been successful in appealing cases in Tallahassee in the past:

“That’s just kind of the way the cookie crumbles.”

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Activists infuriated over Florida’s ‘anti-riot’ bill passing Senate, awaiting DeSantis signature

April 19, 2021


 The following contains editorial content written by a current staff writer for Law Enforcement Today. 

TALLAHASSEE, FL – With the Florida state Senate recently passing HB1, which some have dubbed is the “anti-riot” bill, activist groups such as the ACLU of Florida are outraged that the bill is merely awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature before becoming state law.


While the bill itself has been dubbed as the “anti-riot” or “anti-protesting” bill by proponents and critics, the bill is actually called the “Combatting Public Disorder” bill – and tethered within the bill’s 61 pages is language associated with dissuading illegal acts that can transpire during protests and riots.

On April 15th, HB1 passed primarily along partisan lines in a 23-17 vote in favor, which leaves the bill now simply awaiting Governor DeSantis’ signature.

Considering that Governor DeSantis has been a rather vocal advocate of the measures contained within the bill, it’s pretty much a given that it will become state law.

The bill contains provisions that have stoked the ire of activist groups, predominantly due to generally bad faith interpretations of what is contained in the actual bill.

One such provision that has been a point of contention for those against HB1 is the language within the bill that affords civil legal immunity to motorists who happened to drive through a crowd of people that may be blocking roadways during riots and protests.  

At least that is how the ACLU of Florida has characterized aspects of the bill, as well as other bizarre interpretations of the language contained within HB1. According to a statement released by the ACLU of Florida, the following was noted about HB1:

“[The bill] would also shield violent counter-protesters from civil liability for killing a peaceful protester or demonstrator with their vehicle, and make pulling down a Confederate flag a punishable offense for up to 15 years in prison.”

In reality, the bill presents no such scenario where “violent-counter protesters” can kill a “peaceful protester or demonstrator” with their car and be devoid of civil liability.

In fact, the section that denotes “affirmative defense in civil action” it is prefaced specifically with the words:

“This section does not prohibit constitutionally protected activity such as a peaceful protest.”

From there, HB1 underlines that defendants in a civil suit can bring up an affirmative defense noting that what they are being sued for was caused primarily by the plaintiff because they were actively engaged in a “riot”:

“In a civil action for damages for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage, it is an affirmative defense that such action arose from an injury or damage sustained by a participant acting in furtherance of a riot.

This affirmative defense authorized by this section shall be established by evidence that the participant has been convicted of a riot or an aggravated riot prohibited under S. 870. 01, or by proof of the commission of such crime by a preponderance of the evidence.”

This then brings us to the allegation from the ACLU of Florida where the entity proclaims that people can be jailed for “pulling down a Confederate flag” in Florida.

This is again a severe, and gross, mischaracterization of HB1, particularly because the word “Confederate” isn’t anywhere in the bill.

What is in the bill is a provision pertaining to felony charges that can be levied for those who willfully and maliciously deface or damage a memorial or historic property:

“Any person who, without the consent of the owner thereof, willfully and maliciously defaces, injures, or otherwise damages by any means a memorial or historic property, as defined in S. 806. 135 (1), and the value of the damage to the memorial or historic property is greater than $200, commits a felony of the third degree.”

Where this bad faith interpretation regarding Confederate flags realistically came from within HB1 is the subsection of this provision that defines what a “memorial” is:

“‘Memorial’ means a plaque, statue, marker, flag, banner, cenotaph, religious symbol, painting, seal, tombstone, structure name, or display that is constructed and located with the intent of being permanently displayed or perpetually maintained; is dedicated to a historical person, an entity, an event, or a series of events; and honors or recounts the military service of any past or present United States Armed Forces military personnel, or the past or present public service of a resident of the geographical area comprising the state or the United States.”

In short, all this language within HB1 is specifically outlining the severity of criminal charges that can be levied toward rioters that decide they don’t like a particular monument or memorial and take it upon themselves to illegally tear it down.

The ACLU of Florida, and all the critics of HB1, are expressing frustrations over a bill that carries some enhancements for criminal activity that has always been criminal activity. The bill does not criminalize peaceful protesting in any way shape or form.

Yet this has not stopped the likes of Michael Kubic, who is the executive director of ACLU of Florida, who alleges that HB1 is “racist” and “unconstitutional”:

“HB 1 is racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple. The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

The bill as it stands, and the intent of its crafting, is designed to address the sort of criminal activity that can and has occurred during protests and riots. While the bill was being debated on the Senate floor, Senator Danny Burgess pointed out to critics that the “bill is about preventing violence.”

Those that want to engage in any “peaceful protest” in the state of Florida has nothing to worry about regarding this legislation.

So long as individuals are not attacking people or police, engaging in criminal damage, or participating in generally riotous acts – they won’t be subjected to any criminal proceedings outlined within HB1.

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Author: Scott A. Davis

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