(The Center Square) – Florida’s proposed "Combating Public Disorder Act" is one step away from House approval and transfer to the Senate, where the controversial “anti-mob” bill is likely to be adopted and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis before the 2021 legislative session adjourns in May.
House Bill 1, sponsored by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, passed through the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday in a 10-5 partisan vote. A hearing before the House Judiciary Committee awaits before a House floor vote.
HB 1’s Senate companion, Senate Bill 484, filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, has been referred to three committees without a hearing.
Last summer, as police brutality protests erupted in violence in some cities across the country, DeSantis called for a crackdown on protests even though there were few instances of violence in Florida demonstrations.
In January, after November elections further cemented their domination in Tallahassee, the GOP’s legislative leaders unveiled a package of legislation reflecting the governor’s call, the 60-page Combating Public Disorder Act.
The proposed Combating Public Disorder Act would enhance penalties for crimes committed during a riot or violent protest, not allow people arrested during demonstrations to be released from jail before a court appearance and create new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.
Under HB 1/SB 484, it would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to destroy or demolish a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure or other object that commemorates historical people or events.
The act would strip local governments of liability protections if they interfere with law enforcement during violent protests and forces municipalities to justify proposed reductions in law enforcement budgets.
Under the bill, individual constituents can appeal to the state Administration Commission for a hearing to approve, modify or amend police budgets.
Since they were first introduced, the bills have added a “mob intimidation” offense that would apply when three or more demonstrators 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.”
Florida Democrats and the Florida Legislative Black Caucus have spearheaded opposition to HB 1, which drew protests when it was passed Jan. 27 by the House Criminal Justice & Public Safety Subcommittee and again Wednesday when 68 speakers – overwhelmingly opposed – testified before the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Sunrise, said the bill poses significant liability and financial risks on local law enforcement agencies and courts, noting if, for instance, 1,000 people were arrested for “acting in concert” during a “public disturbance,” prosecutors would need to hire hundreds of private attorneys at significant taxpayer cost as public defenders.
“It is patently unfair to local governments, police agencies, state attorneys, public defenders’ offices, and clerk of courts, who will be forced to bear the burden of the consequences of this bill,” said Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg. “You say we support law enforcement, but we are willing to saddle them with an undue financial burden.”
Fernandez-Barquin said the Combating Public Disorder Act is needed.
“The first responsibility of government is to make sure our residents are safe,” he said. “The fiscal impact is not lost on me. But if you behave lawfully and peacefully, you have nothing to worry about. But if you participate in violence or commit a crime, you must pay the penalty, even if it’s a burden to law-abiding tax-paying residents.”