Multiple Cities in Florida Are Challenging Governor DeSantis’ Anti-Riot Law – An Unconstitutional Response to Protests?

Toby Hazlewood

A partisan response that denies Americans the right to protest?

The cities of Tallahassee and Gainesville will join 7 other Florida cities launching a legal challenge in State Court on November 16, against the so-called 'Anti-Riot' law introduced by Governor DeSantis earlier this year.

Their challenge centers on whether it's legal for state leadership to commandeer local budget authority from city governments as part of any response to riots, for example by amending city police budget allocations.

Introduced in the wake of the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter riots that swept across the country, Governor DeSantis brought in HB 1 as a means of preventing and discouraging future civil riots. In subsequent legal challenge though, federal judges have ruled that in its original form the law was unconstitutional. In spite of this, the law was passed after being taken to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A partisan response to the right to protest?

The law criminalizes protests that turn violent and could have serious consequences for demonstrators. Under HB1 protests deemed as "mob intimidation," would be classed as a first-degree misdemeanor with a penalty of up to one year in prison. Those classified as a "riot," could carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

Under the new law, protesters can't post bail until after making an initial court appearance, and any damage to historical property, such as a Confederate moment, is classified as a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

It also protects drivers who potentially injure or kill protesters with vehicles by granting them affirmative defense, excusing them from civil or criminal liability. This seems a transparent attempt to normalize events in Charlottesville where a driver ran his car into a group of counter-protestors at a white supremacists rally in 2017.

A means of exerting government control?

When the law was ruled to be unconstitutional, a 90-page ruling issued by the judge made clear the many reasons why citizens should be worried if it were to go unchallenged. His ruling stated:

“Its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of” - Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker

Perhaps Floridians should be a little more concerned at the enactment of a law that not only allows state leaders to interfere with how cities manage the funding of services like their police forces in response to riots. They should also worry about provisions in a law that mean all protesters can be arrested and charged under the law if there is any hint of violence.

This could easily be incited through provocation by just one person, effectively criminalizing an entire group that had otherwise voiced their opinions peacefully.

It remains to be seen what effects the legal challenge will have.

What do you think about Governor DeSantis having introduced an Anti-Riot law that effectively criminalizes the very act of protest? Let me know in the comments section below.

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