Republican lawmakers carried legislation through a House subcommittee on Wednesday that would stiffen penalties against rioters.
The House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee advanced HB 1 by a 10-5 partyline vote, prompting some attendees to shout at lawmakers as they exited the committee room. The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin of Miami-Dade, has one committee stop remaining.
Among other pursuits, the proposal looks to enhance legal penalties against rioters, vandals and looters as a means to combat public disorder.
It would elevate consequences for battery, assault, or inciting a riot. It would also require a person arrested for unlawful assembly to remain in custody until their first appearance.
The bill further proposes a new “mob intimidation” offense.
Mob intimidation would apply when three or more act “with a common intent, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person by force, or threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint,” according to the bill language.
Under a fiscal microscope, Democrat lawmakers contend the bill’s higher penalties would financially burden municipalities.
Democratic Reps. Mike Gottlieb, Andrew Learned and Michele Rayner each asked Fernandez-Barquin hypothetical questions about incidents that may lead to mass arrests.
Gottlieb noted that if 1,000 people were arrested and deemed to be “acting in concert” during a riot, hundreds of private attorneys would need to be assigned.
Those presumably sky-high costs became the subcommittee’s sticking point.
“It is patently unfair to local governments, police agencies, state attorneys, public defenders’ offices, and clerk of courts, who will be forced to bear the burden of the consequences of this bill,” Rayner said. “You say we support law enforcement, but we are willing to saddle them with an undue financial burden.”
Beyond finances, critics also fear the legislation’s human costs.
Trish Brown, a Tallahassee Community Action Committee member, warned lawmakers that the bill would disproportionately harm minority communities.
Brown shared that she was arrested during a protest outside the Florida Capitol in September.
“I can’t afford to keep paying you to have my freedom of speech,” Brown said. “It’s a right by everybody and every woman, man and child to express themselves because that’s how we got here today.”
Brown was among the roughly 68 speakers who were afforded less than a minute to address the panel.
The legislation is “racially and politically motivated,” Victoria Paul, political education chair of Florida State University’s Black Student Union, told the panel.
“As history has shown, Black people will pay the price,” she said in comments that were echoed by many of the other speakers.
Unlike at the bill’s previous committee stop, Chairman Scott Plakon managed to maintain relative decorum throughout the meeting.
Notably, a man who told lawmakers to “f*ck off” was escorted out of the committee room. Plakon threatened the man with trespass.
Throughout the meeting, several sergeants at arms remained in the committee room. A handful of law enforcement officers, meanwhile, stood by outside.
At one point, Plakon reminded attendees that snaps, claps and jeers are not permitted.
Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled his vision for the bill last summer amid a nationwide spree of riots and protests, spurred by fatal police interactions, including the high-profile police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The 60-page bill is expansive and notably broad, critics contend.
Among other provisions, it would allow citizens to challenge reductions to local law-enforcement budgets. Thereafter, the Governor and Cabinet would have authority to overturn the proposed reductions.
Other provisions include stiff penalties for blocking traffic during an unlawful assembly and defacing public monuments. Vandals would be required to cover repair or replacement costs, according to the bill language.
While the legislation is championed by Republicans and highlighted on FOX News, it faces strong opposition from Democrats and progressives.
Rep. Christopher Benjamin, a Miami Gardens Democrat who is Black, said the proposal’s potential costs are too high.
“It will cause a financial burden and it will cause a social burden,” Benjamin, a lawyer, said.
Benjamin pointed out that civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. called riots “the language of the unheard.”
“And he said that social justice and progress are the only guarantors against riots. We need to focus on social justice and progress, because in them is the answer to riots, not HB 1,” he said.
Gotltieb, a Miami Beach Democrat who is a criminal defense lawyer, argued that the enhanced penalties and new crimes in the “oppressive measure” would not prevent wrongdoing.
“Never once has any one of my clients, guilty or innocent ever said, ‘I’m not going to commit that crime or I’m going to commit that crime,’thinking about the penalty,” Grieco, who has been a lawyer for 29 years, said. “These enhanced penalties are not going to deter anyone at any point in time, if they feel their civil liberties are being violated.”
Speaking to members, Fernandez-Barquin contended the legislation is necessary, even in a state mostly spared from violent demonstrations.
“The first responsibility of government is to make sure our residents are safe,” he said. “The fiscal impact is not lost on me. But if you behave lawfully and peacefully, you have nothing to worry about. But if you participate in violence or commit a crime, you must pay the penalty, even if it’s a burden to law-abiding tax-paying residents.”
The Republican proposal moves next to the House Judiciary Committee.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.