(The Center Square) – With protests erupting in a Minneapolis suburb after a Black man was shot dead by police and the nationally-televised trial of a former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd resuming Monday nearby, the Florida Senate this week could send a controversial “anti-riot” bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
After a contentious eight-hour debate Friday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved House Bill 1, the proposed Combating Public Disorder Act, in an 11-9 vote, sending it to the Senate floor.
HB 1, filed by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, was adopted by the House March 26 in a 76-39 vote and fast-tracked by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who assigned it just one chamber committee review.
Omitted from the usual committee circuit for law enforcement-related proposals was the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the only panel chaired by a Democrat, Sen. Jason Pizzo, of Miami.
Pizzo, a former state prosecutor, also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He got his chance Friday to lambaste the proposal, holding court for much of the hearing – which featured 65 speakers against and 0 for in favor – with questions proponents often could not answer while, nevertheless, rejecting a slate of amendments.
HB 1 is “nothing more” than “a bullet point in a 2022 or 2024 campaign mailer” for Republicans, Pizzo told Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, who sponsored HB 1’s Senate companion.
Pizzo argued HB 1 is too broad, makes arrests subjective and violates the “textualism” conservatives espouse in interpreting laws as written, not by “legislative intent.”
“You have much greater faith in legislative intent versus textualism,” Pizzo said. “I have a greater concern the courts will see the text of the bill and not what we discussed here today.”
Burgess said the bill’s “legislative intent” will stand up in court.
“I don’t fault you for not knowing the nuances of criminal law and their application,” Pizzo scoffed. “But I do fault the premise that you don’t understand and appreciate what this means in application for Black and brown teenagers.”
“This is going to lead to a misapplication of the law – and we know Black and brown people will suffer disproportionately because we have seen it,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, R-St. Petersburg.
Democrats won a concession last week when Simpson agreed the bill’s racial impact needs to be studied, but the panel rejected an amendment requiring such a study proposed by Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach.
Instead of being incorporated into the bill, Simpson will direct the Legislature’s research office to conduct the study, his office announced.
Last summer, as police brutality protests erupted nationwide after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, DeSantis called for a crackdown even though there was little violence in Florida.
The ‘Combating Public Disorder Act’ would enhance penalties for crimes committed during a protest, not allow people arrested during demonstrations be released from jail before a court appearance, create “mob intimidation” felonies and force municipalities to justify proposed reductions in law enforcement budgets.
Under HB 1, it would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to destroy a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure that commemorates historical people or events.
HB 1 has drawn rebuke nationwide, including by 71 university law school professors who called it the most “draconian” of GOP bills to “criminalize dissent” being filed in legislatures nationwide
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who’s spearheaded the state’s stop-and-start criminal justice reform effort for years, was the lone Republican to vote "no," saying HB 1 is about politics, not public safety.
“This bill continues to dive right into the current political climate,” Brandes said. “That’s where I hope the Senate wouldn’t be.”