One day after Governor Ron DeSantis proposed stronger criminal penalties to quell demonstrations in Florida, a group of state legislators is protesting the move.
The Democratic lawmakers and community leaders said penalizing the First Amendment right to assemble is unconstitutional.
“Governor, with all due respect, you’ve just declared war on our civil rights," said state Rep. Shevrin Jones.
The group held a virtual video news conference on Tuesday afternoon in response to the Governor’s “Combating Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.”
The Governor, also on Tuesday, called on fellow Republican legislators to pass his proposals to increase criminal penalties against protesters as soon as November instead of waiting until the next regular session in March.
Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith welcomed a special session, but to address COVID-19, unemployment, evictions, business bankruptcies and other priorities in Florida.
“The first thing Gov. DeSantis wants to do is he wants to criminalize peaceful protesters?” said Guillermo-Smith during the online news conference. “It’s an outrageous prioritization of a non-issue and it’s obviously political.”
State Sen. Oscar Braynon agreed with Guillermo-Smith.
“If you want to call a special session, call that right now,” he said. “But, I will call [DeSantis] on this B.S., in this special session [which] is strictly about elections and electioneering.”
Standing before a line of law enforcement officers in Polk County on Monday, DeSantis outlined his proposals that would create new criminal offenses and increase penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies, including:
Obstructing traffic during an non-permitted protest would be a felony. The law would remove liability for drivers who strike protesters during a march.
It would become a felony to participate in a protest where property is damaged, public monuments are toppled or people are harassed at “public accommodations” such as restaurants.
Anyone who threw an object at law enforcement officers would be subject to a minimum six-month jail term.
People arrested during protests would be denied bail before their initial court hearings. They would have to successfully argue they were no danger to the community before being released.
Those who organized or funded “violent” protests would be treated like members of organized crime.
The Democratic lawmakers and their supporters called the governor’s proposal a law in search of a problem instead of a problem in need of a law.
“You already have laws on the books to address vandalism, to address looting," said state Rep. Anna Eskamani. “We know this has nothing to do with public safety. It will lead to the arrests of more Black and brown people.”
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell cited a report that said 90% of the 7,750 protests between May 26 and Aug. 22 were peaceful.
“Leave it to Florida’s Republicans to give 100% to a 10% problem while they give zero effort to the real problems affecting Floridians," she said. "Mr. Governor, you have 99 problems, but protesters ain’t one.”
The group had many questions about the proposals, such as:
Would the person committing an act of property damage be the only one penalized or would the entire group of demonstrators face a third-degree felony charge?
Would the proposed legislation remove liability from anyone who drives a vehicle through a crowd of demonstrators and injures any of the protesters?
Would the legislation create a new mandatory minimum sentence that could keep accused protesters in jail for a minimum of six months?
Would anyone convicted of participating in a disorderly assembly be ineligible for state benefits and/or state or local government employment?
“For those who may be feeling like the government is putting its knee on your neck," said Driskell. “This November you have to exercise your power to vote.”
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