Response to Florida Anti-Riot Bill: Federal Judge Pushes Back

September 15, 2021 News & Announcements

A bill that has been seen as controversial from the start has been put to a halt. Florida Governor DeSantis signed a bill that was supposed to act as an extension of the state’s Stand Your Ground law. The bill was pushed after an increase of protests starting from the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement. DeSantis signed off on a bill that would criminalize protestors during public demonstrations, something that was disputed quite passionately upon its release. If you would like to read more about the social movements that helped fuel this bill, you can do so here.

The most recent update regarding the Anti-Riot bill is that a federal judge has blocked the bill from moving forward. This response was backed by the overall concern that the law was deemed as too indistinct. As it stood from the time DeSantis gave his signature approval, the law could potentially jeopardize the public’s first amendment rights—meaning even peaceful protests would be at a risk of harsh punishment. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are some of the core values of the United States, and the federal judge believed that the Anti-Riot bill would endanger that right.

Where Did it Begin?

If there is one thing that the United States has seen a drastic increase in, it is protests. Specifically, protests erupted in 2020 as a result of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Protests spread across the nation, and even reached across international seas. Disagreements over whether the protests were considered peaceful or overtly violent has caused contention between citizens and government officials. One aspect that continuously gets brought up is the tension between police officers and the public.

The Anti-Riot bill was originally signed by DeSantis in April, where it highlighted a list of harsh penalties for citizens who had been involved with violent riots, vandalized historical landmarks, blocked highways during marches, and engaged in what was referred to as “mob behavior” to persuade others side with their opinion.

What Does the Bill Say?

Section 870.02 of the Florida Statutes defines the  term “riot”. Under the statute, a person has committed riot-like behavior if they have done the following:

  • Has willingly participated in a public disturbance that was violent, containing three or more people and acting with a common intent to instill violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in:
  • Injuring another person,
  • Damaging property; or
  • Causing imminent danger of injury or damage to another person or property.

If a person is convicted of committing a riot crime they would face a third-degree felony, which is punishable up to 5 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

Under the Anti-Riot bill, it would be a felony for any protestors to block roads. It would be a misdemeanor for protestors to intimidate or harass people located at a public accommodation, such as in a restaurant or store. In addition, a minimum jail sentence of six months would be imposed upon  protestors who hit or used force against a police officer with an object during a protest. Another key aspect of the bill was that if protestors are blocking the road, the driver would not be liable for any deaths or injuries caused from fleeing the the protest for safety reasons.

The Anti-Riot law also has a section that says it would prevent local government from receiving any state grants or government aids if they chose to cut its law enforcement budget. This was proposed after Texas reacted poorly to the city of Austin making significant cuts to its law enforcement.

For more information on the bill’s specifics, check out our page on What is Florida’s Anti-Riot Law.

Initial Response to the Anti-Riot Bill

With the initial proposal of this bill came immediate objection. People viewed this as an unconstitutional bill, and one that would potentially harm citizens’ first amendment rights. The ACLU of Florida further disagreed with the bill, claiming that it is a hostile act upon Americans’ values. The executive director Micah Kubic gave the following comment: “The effort has one goal: silence, criminalize and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of the law enforcement.”

After signing the bill, DeSantis announced that he wanted it to be passed quickly. After more violent protests had taken place in Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Washington, he did not want the same to happen for Florida. However, the federal judge who reviewed the bill had other plans.

The Federal Judge’s Newest Decision

After the bill reached a federal judge, it was put to a halt. After reviewing the specifics of the bill thoroughly, the federal judge found that it was not passable. In the written injunction, the judge goes into detail about the law and why it is too vague to continue forward with the process. Some of the key highlights of the injunction are as follows:

  • The federal judge states that the new definition of “riot” that DeSantis is trying to impose is a way to empower law enforcement officers against people who criticize their authority, following a quote DeSantis included saying that anyone against the proposed bill was anti-police, and that he will use the new bill to “rain down” on those who violated it.
  • The new definition of “riot” is too vague to the point of being unconstitutional, and Floridians of ordinary intelligence would have a difficult time understanding what acts would then be legal or what would be criminalized.
  • The bill requires too much speculation. The judge enforced that the Legislature is responsible for correcting and improving the law.

What the judge officially ordered at the end of the injunction:

  • The federal judge stated that the ECF No. 64 injunction was granted in part and denied in part.
  • The defendant (DeSantis) must take no further steps to try and enforce Statute § 870.01(2) (2021) as it pertains to the new definition of “riot”.
  • The injunction is made effective immediately, but the Defendants can seek an order to require the posting of security.

To read the federal judge’s injunction in its entirety, click here.

What Does this Mean?

Well, for now it means that organizations and citizens who are against the Anti-Riot bill can relax a little. As it currently stands, civilians’ first amendment rights to engage in a protest are still protected, and participants will not face the severe punishments DeSantis was trying to enforce.

The NAACP had their own opinion after the latest update with the bill:

“Today’s decision enjoining enforcement of a key provision of [Anti-Riot bill] will greatly contribute to the safety of Black organizers and other affected by this unjust law. [The law] effectively criminalizes our constitutional rights to peacefully protest and puts anyone—particularly Black people demonstrating against police violence—at risk of unlawful arrest, injury, and even death. This targeting of protestors is shameful and directly contradicts our Constitution. We are glad the court has agreed to suspend enforcement of this key provision while we continue to advocate to ensure that Florida protestors can safely exercise their right to speak out against injustice.”

Being able to demonstrate protests in a peaceful way is how this country has dealt with social issues for many years. It is a constitutional right that should continue to be granted, not only in the state of Florida but across the entire nation.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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