TALLAHASSEE — Flanked by uniformed law-enforcement officers, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed into law a controversial law-and-order measure sparked by nationwide protests that erupted last year after George Floyd’s death.
The law, which went into effect immediately, creates a new crime of “mob intimidation,” enhances riot-related penalties and makes it harder for local officials to reduce spending on law enforcement.
The measure (HB 1) has been one of the 2021 legislative session’s most contentious issues, with all Republicans but one — Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg — supporting it and all Democrats opposed.
At a bill-signing ceremony in Polk County, where he announced the framework for the plan in September, DeSantis boasted that the measure “is the strongest, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”
The law, which also makes it a felony to tear down statues or monuments, includes giving the governor and Florida Cabinet authority to override local officials’ decisions to reduce law enforcement spending.
Under the law, state attorneys and members of governing bodies who object to reducing operational budgets of municipal law enforcement agencies can appeal to the state Administration Commission, made up of the governor, the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the agriculture commissioner.
DeSantis has staunchly defended the provision, saying Monday that it came in response to a nationwide movement to “defund the police” amid protests that erupted after Floyd’s death. Floyd, a 36-year-old Black man who was unarmed, died in May after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for at least eight minutes. Chauvin is on trial for Floyd’s death.
The plan “tackles head-on this idea that we’ve seen last summer and then we still see today that there should be a movement to defund law enforcement,” DeSantis, who is running for re-election next year, said at Monday’s event.
“This bill actually prevents against local government defunding law enforcement. We’ll be able to stop it at the state level,” DeSantis said. “It’s an insane theory. It’s not going to be allowed to ever carry the day in the state of Florida.”
But critics of the measure say it will impede local officials’ efforts to redirect law-enforcement spending toward other services, such as mental-health workers.
The process to challenge police budgets creates “an unfunded mandate to our local governments requiring them to have to participate in this crazy, just very weird funding appeals process if they decide to make changes to their law enforcement budget,” state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who is a lawyer, told reporters during a video conference call Monday.
Democrats also questioned part of the law that takes away legal protections for municipalities if they prevent law enforcement’s ability to respond to “a riot or unlawful assembly.”
Under the new law, a municipality “has a duty” to allow local police “to respond appropriately to protect persons and property during a riot or unlawful assembly based on the availability of adequate equipment.”
A governing body that “breaches that duty” is “civilly liable for any damages including damages arising from personal injury, wrongful death, or property damages proximately caused by the municipality’s breach of duty,” the law says.
The provision holds local government officials accountable, DeSantis said Monday.
“If you’re derelict in your duty … if you tell law enforcement to stand down, then you’re responsible for the damage that ensues, and if someone’s been harmed or their property has been destroyed, then they can sue you for compensation,” he said.
In addition to Democratic lawmakers, dozens of civil-rights organizations and left-leaning groups have opposed the crackdown on protests, which was such a priority to GOP legislative leaders it earned the designation as House Bill 1.
Black Democrats especially have lashed out at the measure, which they say is rooted in racism and is evocative of Jim Crow-era laws targeting Black people. Critics say the law gives too much leeway to law-enforcement officers to decide whether to arrest peaceful protesters who have participated in rallies that might have erupted in violence unrelated to their actions.
“Unfortunately, laws are not applied equally. And when law enforcement has complete discretion, as you saw on the insurrection at the (U.S.) Capitol, you see how laws can be applied differently depending on your background, depending on the color of your skin,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, said Monday, during a conference call with reporters. Fried, a lawyer, is considering a run against DeSantis next year.
Democrats also raised questions about the costs of the new law, which requires people who are arrested on riot-related charges to be held in jail until their first appearances before judges, a process that could leave protesters behind bars for days.
The measure also creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation” which makes it unlawful “for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”
Critics of the measure contend that it unconstitutionally infringes on the right to freedom of speech and to assemble and will result in lawsuits. A number of organizations issued statements Monday condemning DeSantis’ approval of the law.
The bill “criminalizes peaceful protest,” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida executive director Micah Kubic said in a statement.
“Each and every provision harkens back to Jim Crow. Constitutional lawyers and scholars have called the bill overbroad, vague, and warned it will chill free speech,” Kubic said. “Every single Floridian should be outraged by this blatant attempt to erode our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. It is outrageous and blatantly unconstitutional. Gov. DeSantis’ championing of and signature on this law degrades, debases, and disgraces Florida and our democracy.”