Democrats stood helpless Thursday as Republicans marched Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-riot bill onto the House floor, tacking on several amendments that tighten the bill’s grip over demonstrators and municipalities.
The bill (HB 1) is among the most contentious proposals of the 2021 Legislative Session.
It contains a slew of provisions that aim to thwart public disorder. Among them, it would stiffen penalties against rioters and allow state leaders to overrule a municipality’s decision to slash police budgets.
The proposal, which motored through the Legislature’s committee process, is a Republican priority. Throughout the process, Democrats have struggled to slow or otherwise reshape the legislation.
The bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin of Miami-Dade, bolstered the bill with several amendments on Thursday.
Noting that municipalities have a duty to protect people and property during a riot, one amendment established that cities that fail to protect people or property are civilly liable.
For example, if a city official intentionally obstructs or interferes with law enforcement’s riot response, the city may be liable, Fernandez-Barquin explained.
Democratic Rep. Michelle Rayner filed an amendment to remove the liability.
“I believe it’s a scare tactic in order to induce local governments to comply,” Rayner said.
The amendment failed.
Fernandez-Barquin filed another amendment that would make damaging a memorial or historic property a third-degree felony if it’s valued at more than $200.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s stealing a candy bar or $201 dollars, I think we live in a society of laws and laws need to be enforced. If someone breaks the law, they have to suffer the consequences,” Fernandez-Barquin rebutted to Democrat complaints.
The amendment passed along party lines.
Proponents of the bill contend the measure is needed to protect law enforcement and law-abiding citizens.
“We need to deter people from bad actions,” Fernandez-Barquin said.
Critics, meanwhile, contend the 60-page bill is woefully broad.
They argue it is unlawful, suppressive and targeted at minorities. They also assert the legislation would undermine home-rule.
Under the bill, state attorneys and elected officials who vote against a law enforcement budget cut can petition the state. Thereafter, the Governor and Cabinet would have authority to overturn the proposed reductions.
House Minority Co-Leader Evan Jenne filed an amendment to “completely obliterate” the provision.
“We are trying to remove this bear trap from local municipalities,” Jenne said.
His amendment also failed.
The bill would also create a new “mob intimidation” offense. That 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.
Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando filed an amendment that would shield sports fans who shout or “go overboard, throw a couple of empty bottles at a referee” from the mob intimidation charge.
“Make no mistake that today’s hypothetical scenario can become tomorrow’s criminal charge,” Eskamani said.
Again, the amendment failed.
Other provisions include elevated consequences for battery, assault, or inciting a riot and stiff penalties against demonstrators who obstruct traffic.
Additionally, the bill would require a person arrested for unlawful assembly to remain in custody until their first appearance.
DeSantis announced 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.
Months later, Republican leaders unveiled the bill after rioters breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Fernandez-Barquin’s proposal will receive a full House vote on Friday.
If signed into law, the bill would take effect immediately.