In a letter sent to Florida lawmakers, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren is urging legislators to oppose the controversial anti-riot bill.
The legislation, which would enhance legal penalties against so-called rioters, vandals and looters in an effort to combat public disorder, is a priority among GOP leadership. The House Judiciary Committee is set to debate the bill Wednesday afternoon — and if it passes, the proposal is onto the House floor.
“This bill doesn’t give police or prosecutors any important new tools to handle unrest. It tears a couple [of] corners off the Constitution,” Warren writes. “It’s misguided. The public needs to understand this is a waste of valuable time and taxpayer money to keep pushing this bad bill forward.”
In his letter to lawmakers, Warren cites several reasons why legislators should reject the bill.
First, Warren argues, the legislation blocks First Amendment rights, because the bill expands the ways Constitutionally protected protesters can be arrested and charged as a felon.
Warren also claims the legislation will not improve public safety, saying “inventing new crimes and enhancing the penalties for old ones is a highly ineffective and imprudent way to improve public safety.”
The Hillsborough State Attorney referenced protests over the summer in response to the killing of George Floyd, which inspired the bill, saying that the office is currently prosecuting those responsible for looting and rioting in Tampa using laws currently on the books.
“The bill was initially proposed last fall in the wake of unlawful riots that splintered off from peaceful protests across the country following George Floyd’s murder,” Warren writes in the letter. “This misguided bill, while providing no solution to the challenges faced by prosecutors and law enforcement, directly undermines First Amendment freedoms by criminalizing peaceful protests by the many based on unlawful conduct by the few.”
Warren declined to prosecute 67 protesters arrested in early June. Police arrested the protesters for unlawful assembly during demonstrations calling for police reform in the wake of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. Still, Warren’s office found no basis for such charges.
In addition to declining to file charges, Warren’s office also took steps to expunge the arrests from each person’s record.
As he continues in his letter, Warren states that the legislation ignores the biggest problem: being able to identify the small number of bad actors in a larger law-abiding group and determine who did what.
Warren writes that the proposal “retreats to the outdated ‘throw-everyone-in-jail’ philosophy that has been revealed as a giant failure — having caused mass incarceration and systemic injustice while perpetuating a revolving door system that undermines the long-term safety of our neighborhoods.”
He continues by addressing the role of systemic racism within the criminal justice system, advocating for other policy options like eliminating private prisons and addressing problems unfairly faced in communities of color.
“If the drafters of these bills seriously want to confront the social unrest that led to rioting last year, then they should attend a protest, engage with those seeking reform, speak with the front-line law enforcement officers who patrolled the protests, and learn from prosecutors about how these cases proceed from charging to verdict,” Warren wrote.
“We need to confront the systemic racism we know exists in the criminal justice system,” he continued. “Until then, politicians can continue to ‘talk tough’ on crime and create as many laws as they want, but we will not make any real progress as a state or country unless and until we have a serious approach from serious leaders.”