What is Florida’s “Anti-Riot” Law?

August 9, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

In April, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s “anti-riot” bill into law through the

Combating Public Disorder Act. The original bill was intended to expand on Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. This law, through Section 776.013 of the Florida Statutes, states that a person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat, has the right to stand his or her ground, and is permitted to use or threaten to use nondeadly or deadly force depending on the circumstances. If you would like to read more about the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida, you can do so here.

The final bill that was signed by DeSantis altered some of the proposed measures, including that individuals who run over protesters with their cars will no longer be granted immunity. Despite these measures not being included in the final bill, the legislation aims to criminalize protests and public demonstrations. Melba Pearson, a civil-rights attorney in Miami, expressed concern that the legislation will cause people to be less likely to organize, stating “we didn’t move forward as a country without different groups organizing and advocating for their rights and for their needs. We wouldn’t be a country right now if people didn’t. To abandon these democratic principles for no good reason is really, really problematic.”

What Does the Bill Say?

The bill amended Section 870.02 of the Florida Statutes to define the term “riot”. It states that a person commits a riot if he or she:

  1. Willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in:
  2. Injury to another person;
  3. Damage to property; or
  4. Imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property.

A person who commits a riot commits a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

The bill also defines the term “aggravated rioting” and states that a person commits an aggravated riot if, in the course of committing a riot, he or she:

  1. Participates with 25 or more other persons;
  2. Causes great bodily harm to a person not participating in the riot;
  3. Causes property damage in excess of $5,000;
  4. Displays, uses, threatens to use, or attempts to use a deadly weapon; or
  5. By force, or threat of force, endangers the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on the public street, highway, or road.

A person who commits aggravating rioting commits a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years of prison or probation and a $10,000 fine.

Furthermore, the bill allows for anyone arrested for burglary, theft, battery, or aggravated battery during the furtherance of a riot or aggravated riot to have their charges enhanced by one level. For example, in the case of aggravated battery, the second-degree felony charge is upgraded to a first-degree felony. In addition, the bill states that protesters shall be held in custody until they

are brought before the court for their first appearance. After their first appearance, they can post bail and be released from jail. This change forces protestors to stay in jail for 24-48 hours before their first appearance as opposed to being able to immediately post bail and leave. When it comes to hitting protesting pedestrians with a vehicle, the bill states that they do not have immunity from the legal repercussions, however, they do have some defenses if they are sued civilly and can prove they felt threatened by the protesting pedestrian. The bill also creates a minimum term of imprisonment of six months for a person convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer committed in furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot. In addition, Section 806.135 of the Florida Statutes was created under this bill to enumerate the penalties for destroying or demolishing a memorial or historic property. Under the statute, any person who willfully and maliciously destroys or demolishes a memorial or historic property, or willfully and maliciously pulls down a memorial or historic property, unless authorized by the owner of the property, commits a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years in prison or probation and a $10,000 fine. Importantly, the new law makes cyber-intimidation by publication a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in jail and a $1,000 fine. This is when someone means to disseminate, post, or otherwise disclose information to an internet site or forum to incite violence, commit a crime against a person, or threaten and harass the person to the point they fear reasonable bodily harm.

The Aftermath

DeSantis’ anti-riot bill has been heavily criticized by civil rights groups who believe it infringes on the constitutional right to peacefully protest under the First Amendment. Despite recognizing that there was very little violent unrest in Florida during the wake of the George Floyd protests, the governor stated that “if you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There’s just nothing even close.” Opponents like Kara Gross, the legislative director for the ACLU of Florida found the main problem of this bill to be the language, as it

“is so overbroad and vague…that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own.  These individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this [bill] is to instill fear in Floridians.”

Although different organizations have filed federal lawsuits over the bill, it was announced just this past week that Gainesville may be the first city in Florida to sue DeSantis over his anti-riot bill. The Gainesville City Commission is voted last week on August 5th, regarding whether or not to authorize the city to commence suing DeSantis. One of the main issues the commission has with the bill is that it “enables the state to prevent municipalities from reducing law enforcement budgets,” an act the draft complaint alleges is an overreach of state power. Section 166.011 of the Florida Statutes, known as the Municipal Home Rule Powers Act, specifically prohibits this kind of state power and allows for municipalities to decide on their own budgets based on the needs of their residents without state approval. But this was not an error, as DeSantis admitted that, “this bill actually prevents against local government defunding law enforcement [as] we’ll be able to stop it at the state level.” DeSantis’ press secretary called the concept of defunding the police, a slogan used by protestors, as a type of “reckless experimentation.” The commission, who “wants to consider transferring youth mentorship programs out of the police budget to another department, or to create a new youth services department,” would do so by decreasing the police budget by the amount of the program’s funding, leaving other areas of the police budget untouched. Therefore, Commissioner Gail Johnson has said that “’defunding the police’ is not the language she’d use for this reorganization of youth services, which she has said has been an ongoing conversation since before last year.” Whether or not the city of Gainesville decides to sue the Governor, they have certainly raised interesting questions that will likely lead to more push-back against the law in the upcoming months.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

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