Anti-Riot or Anti-Protest? Florida Governor Signs Contentious New Bill

Florida Governor
Governor-elect Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

On April 19th, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law H.B. 1, new legislation that includes a collection of amendments and additions to existing Florida statutes concerning criminal charges for violent protests. The legislation enhances penalties for people who commit crimes during a riot and gives the state the power to approve funding of local budgets, particularly in regards to funding law enforcement.

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H.B. 1 amends the section of Florida Statutes concerning affrays and riots to read in part:

“A person commits a riot if he or she 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: (a) Injury to another person; (b) Damage to property; or (c) Imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property. A person who commits a riot commits a felony of the third degree…”

Additionally, H.B. 1 establishes a new charge, “aggravated riot,” that is classified as a second-degree felony:

“A person commits aggravated rioting if, in the course of committing a riot, he or she:
(a) Participates with 25 or more other persons; (b) Causes great bodily harm to a person not participating in the riot; (c) Causes property damage in excess of $5,000; (d) Displays, uses, threatens to use, or attempts to use a deadly weapon; or (e) By force, or threat of force, endangers the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway, or road.”

Critics have expressed concern that the bill is overbroad, vague, and will chill free speech. Of further concern is that under the new law, peaceful protesters could be  arrested and charged with a felony if others at a demonstration become  violent or disorderly.

“The bill creates harsher misdemeanors and felonies for already existing offenses, yet law enforcement and prosecutors already have all of the tools needed to hold bad actors accountable for violence,” Micah Kubic, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. 

“To be clear—the goal of this law is to silence dissent and create fear among Floridians who want to take to the streets to march for justice. It should not be a crime to exist in public space, yet that’s exactly what Gov. DeSantis has done—criminalized being at a protest just because someone else does something wrong,”Kubic added.