Bills creating harassment-free zone around first responders head to Senate, House floors

Police Miami Beach
Onlookers who fail to obey a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical worker’s warning to back away could face time behind bars.

After three failed attempts, South Florida lawmakers are closer than ever to passing legislation that would create a harassment-free zone around police and other first responders in the line of duty.

While the radius of that zone differs between the Senate and House versions of the proposed law, both of the bills (SB 184, HB 75) are now headed to their respective chamber floors.

The Senate Rules Committee gave approval to SB 184 after hearing from its sponsor, Sen. Bryan Ávila, and several speakers for and against the measure.

Ávila’s bill, if passed, would make it illegal for a person to approach or remain within 14 feet of a first responder performing their official duty after receiving a warning to back away.

The bill specifies this restriction applies only to people who intend to threaten, harass or interfere with a first responder’s work, a standard that elicited concerns from two of the panel’s members.

Violators would face a first-degree misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines.

Ávila, a Miami Springs Republican, said the problem of police harassment is especially of concern in Miami-Dade County, where people gather in large numbers for Spring Break and other large-scale events that often result in disorder.

“Things happen in those situations, and when you have law enforcement that have to respond to a scene in the middle of the night (without) any true visibility on whether somebody’s armed or not … it’s probably the most complicated situation you can potentially imagine,” he said during Wednesday’s hearing. “They have to stabilize an area (and then) treat one or multiple victims.”

The scenario Ávila described echoes ones the legislation’s House sponsor, Hialeah Republican Rep. Alex Rizo, has used to advocate for the change since he first filed a bill in March 2021 to provide emergency personnel with more enforceable space in public to do their jobs.

Rizo’s bill then, its 2022 sequel and their Senate companions contemplated a 30-foot perimeter. Amid nationwide police reform protests and incidents of brutality in Miami Beach, which passed a similar restriction over which a tourist has since sued, none of the bills received a single hearing.

Rizo then reduced the distance in his 2023 version of the bill to 20 feet, the same as in the Miami Beach ordinance. House lawmakers advanced the measure to the chamber floor before it stalled out.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 17-4 to advance Rizo’s latest measure, which again uses the 20-foot standard. Violators would face a second-degree misdemeanor charge carrying an up to 60-day jail stint and $500 in fines.

Rizo stressed it would be up to a first responder’s discretion to use it if the bill becomes law.

“An officer doesn’t necessarily have to invoke this provision,” he said. “It’s purely up to (their) judgment if they do feel that the actions of people around them are impeding their job.”

Ávila told the Senate panel Wednesday that he settled on the even more permissive 14-foot standard because the distance is equal to the length of an average car. Democratic Sens. Shevrin Jones of Miami Gardens and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg didn’t think that made sense, with the latter criticizing its “arbitrariness.”

“You and I know the average car length is 14 feet, but the person who’s just out there, they don’t know that,” Jones said, adding that levying relatively stiff criminal penalties against someone who doesn’t know gave him “very big heartburn.”

Florida law already provides that it is a first-degree misdemeanor to “knowingly and willfully harass” police and firefighters “with the intent to intimidate or coerce (them) from performing a lawful duty.”

Representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police, Florida Smart Justice and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office signaled support for the measure.

Florida Highway Patrol Trooper William Smith, speaking for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said he’s been in “a lot of scenarios” like the one Ávila described.

“It’s not the fact that we’re trying to preclude … recording people,” he said. “It’s all about workspace.”

Members of several civil rights advocacy groups disagreed.

Abdelilah Skhir, a policy strategist for the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legislation runs afoul of First Amendment protections.

“Denying citizens the right to oversee and scrutinize the work of public officials is an attempt to silence and criminalize those who speak up for what they believe is right, which is a core aspect of our democracy,” he said.

Jasmine Burney-Clark, consulting director of Equal Ground, argued that if the person who recorded George Floyd’s murder had been made to stand 14 feet back, many details that led to the conviction of his killers would not have been captured.

“If you were 14 feet away, the obscurity (the distance would have created) would probably not have (resulted in) the verdict that it did,” she said.

Republican Melbourne Sen. Debbie Mayfield noted, as did Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, that the legislation does not expressly prohibit recordings.

Kissimmee Democratic Sen. Vic Torres, a former New York City Transit detective, said the bill would help first responders restore order in “chaotic” situations.

“Yes, sometimes things do happen because nobody’s perfect, but we have to understand (many police today have) body cameras. We have everything that we have in order to find out what went wrong,” he said. “You want to make sure the first responders coming to the scene are able to get in there and perform their job without being told what to do, because they know what to do. They know the situation.”

SB 184 has co-sponsorship from Republican Sen. Tom Hooper of Palm Harbor. HB 75 has co-sponsorship from Miami Gardens Democratic Rep. Christopher Benjamin and Republican Rep. Taylor Yarkosky of Montverde.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

One comment

  • Dont Say FLA

    January 25, 2024 at 7:22 am

    If you don’t like what a police is doing, you used to be able to get within earshot of them and do something like yell at them to cut it out.

    Now, limited to keeping 15 feet or more distance from the police, what kind of shot options remain in Rhonda’s Gunshite Stain for citizens witnessing the police wantonly abusing their powers and some human(s)?

    This terrible plan is going to backfire or perhaps fire back. And I will laugh when it does.

Comments are closed.


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