Senate approves harassment-free zone around first responders
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 11/8/23-Sen. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, talks about Senate Bill 10C his bill on scrutinized companies doing business with Iran, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. The Senate took up and passed the House version of the bill and it now moves to the governor for approval. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

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The measure would criminalize remaining within 14 feet of a first responder after being told to back away.

A bill enabling Florida police, firefighters and paramedics to establish a harassment-free zone around themselves in the field is heading to the House after clearing the Legislature’s upper chamber with unanimous support.

Senators voted 39-0 for the measure (SB 184), which 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 that the restriction applies only to people who intend to threaten, harass or interfere with a first responder’s work. Several Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about that standard.

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

Miami Springs Republican Sen. Bryan Ávila, the bill’s sponsor, argued that first responders need more protections while in the line of duty, particularly during large-scale events that hit South Florida during Spring Break and other big attractions.

“You’ve got to think about the situation that a lot of these first responders have to respond to. Usually in some of these cases, you don’t know … what people in the audience could potentially have on them. You don’t know what was the reason or the rationale for the brawl or conflict, and you certainly don’t know how many victims you have until you arrive on the scene,” he said Wednesday during a Senate floor discussion of the bill, which passed Thursday morning.

“You’re coming into a situation that is very tense, very up-tempo, and … if you don’t stabilize it, it could really boil over into something bigger.”

The scenario Ávila described is similar to examples Hialeah Republican Rep. Alex Rizo, who is sponsoring a similar House version of the legislation (HB 75), has used to advocate for the change since he first filed a bill in March 2021 to give emergency workers 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.

In Miami-Dade, a majority of the County Commission criticized the proposal as likely to worsen already tense police relations. Commissioner Kionne McGhee, a former House Democratic Leader, suggested that the bill was meant to deter and reduce the quality of filmed police encounters.

“This is basically a bill to kill camera pixels,” he said. “I also see this as creating an arrest factory.”

Rizo reduced the distance to 20 feet in his 2023 bill, the same as in the Miami Beach ordinance. Ávila cut it further in his companion bill to 14 feet, which he explained is the average length of a car.

Those distances remain the same in each bill this year. Rizo will have to either amend his bill, which now awaits a vote on the House floor, or send Ávila’s bill back to the Senate to be amended so it matches the House version.

The long-accepted reactionary gap for police — the distance officers must keep between themselves and a suspect to respond to a sudden threat — is 25 feet if the suspect’s hands aren’t visible and 6 to 9 feet if they are.

While they ultimately voted for Ávila’s bill, some of his Democratic colleagues expressed reservations about its potential to impede the right of citizens to document police behavior.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book asked Ávila to confirm that nothing in the measure would preclude onlookers from recording law enforcement personnel as long as they remained outside the 14-foot radius after being told to back up.

Ávila assured her that was the case, adding that it is “a constitutional right for anybody to do that.”

West Palm Beach Sen. Bobby Powell presented a scenario where two or more officers are working a scene, with one making an arrest and another enforcing a perimeter. In such a case, he said, would the distance people must move away increase to “forty-something feet” so that they’re in compliance with the bill’s strictures?

Ávila downplayed the likelihood of that occurring, but did not dispute the possibility.

Some Democrats advocated for the measure. Kissimmee Sen. Vic Torres, a retired New York City Transit cop and former Marine, said he knew firsthand how difficult it is for officers in “chaotic situations.”

“There are so many moving parts in a location, and we need to give the first responders, officers and paramedics the space they need to do their work,” he said. “Sometimes people mean well, but they interfere with the process, and we need to pass legislation to make sure (we) protect them from harm.”

Hollywood Sen. Jason Pizzo, a former prosecutor, said people know not to move beyond police do-not-cross tape because it could risk contaminating a crime scene, but they may exhibit less restraint when police are first securing the area.

He noted how in the aftermath of the June 2021 condo collapse in Surfside, he witnessed police having to keep parents from rushing into the rubble to search for their children.

“Certainly it was not unreasonable, but painful, to ask people to stay back for their own safety,” he said. “I know that we may reflexively think or jump to horrible situations (like) the murder of George Floyd … but the overwhelming majority of cases will involve situations where (first responders are trying to enforce) the preservation of evidence, the sanctity of privacy and the sensitive nature and content (at the) site of a crime.”

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.


6 comments

  • PeterH

    February 15, 2024 at 12:01 pm

    Another “vague” bill to be reviewed by Ashley Moody and signed into law:

    “…..The bill specifies that the restriction applies only to people who intend to threaten, harass or interfere with a first responder’s work. Several Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about that standard.”

    Does filming the event by a bystander with a cell phone “interfere” with police activity?

    • Tom

      February 16, 2024 at 8:09 am

      “Does filming the event by a bystander with a cell phone “interfere” with police activity?” – no, but it does generate evidence that could be used to convict police officers who use excessive violence … and we can’t have that now. This would be another, what legal experts describe as comically unconstitutional, Florida law that we’ll have to defend in court on the taxpayers dime.

  • Dont Say FLA

    February 15, 2024 at 12:03 pm

    What a Fine idea, protecting the few first responders who act like Derek Chauvin formerly of the Minneapolis PD.

    What will the FLgOP think of next?

  • Mayorkas Impeached

    February 15, 2024 at 1:56 pm

    When I was a kid and starting to drive my dad told me if the police pull you over, you talk t9 them with respect. You don’t run. You don’t resist. You don’t get smart with them. Now if you do, you deserve to get your ass kicked. I have lived by that and have not had any trouble. Now tune in to COPS and watch Democrats completely ignore that advice. George Floyd was a criminal. He was high as a kite and did resist arrest. He did not deserve to die and the officer should have been charged with no worse than manslaughter. The whole funeral with horse drawn carriages and such was a complete clown show.

    • Joe

      February 16, 2024 at 12:38 pm

      Whoever posted this inane nonsense was high as a kite, lol.

    • Dont Say FLA

      February 16, 2024 at 1:00 pm

      You could tune in to COPS for cherry picked content from innumerable sources of content, edited to make an entertaining Jerry Springerish show.

      Or you could tune in to Trump’s trial broadcast live as it happens. No editing. No cherry picking. No formulating a story the audience wants to hear.

Comments are closed.


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