Sheriff’s Office backs away from anti-riot law, worried that people’s civil rights could be violated.

·6 min read

Broward sheriff’s deputies are being told not to enforce Florida’s new anti-rioting law unless absolutely necessary.

In those cases, they must run it up the chain of command before taking action, according to an internal memo obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Col. David R. Holmes, the agency’s executive director of law enforcement, emailed roughly 30 district captains Wednesday to say the anti-rioting law threatened to diminish the Sheriff’s Office’s attempts to connect with the community.

The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t need “any overzealous deputies utilizing the new law to conduct enforcement that could violate people’s civil liberties,” Holmes wrote.

The new law enhances criminal penalties in connection with protests, calls for jailing protesters overnight and says people accused of participating in a riot could face 15 years in prison, among other things.

The law, the brainchild of Gov. Ron DeSantis, has created a firestorm of controversy as supporters hail the tough approach and detractors insist it violates people’s First Amendment rights to demonstrate peacefully.

The Sheriff’s Office memo could inflame the discussion by pitting Sheriff’s Office commanders against cops on the streets who have welcomed the get-tough tactics.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to discuss the memo. In fact, many law enforcement agencies won’t say what they intend to do with the law. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office declined to answer questions, as did other agencies contacted by the Sun Sentinel.

The new law will be scrutinized by the courts with numerous lawsuits and appeals, Holmes wrote in his email.

Florida already has “enough laws on the books to do our job effectively without the new law,” Holmes wrote. “Things should not change for us in how we enforce the law pertaining to protest(s) as we have been very effective doing just that.”

Reviewing the law

Sheriff Gregory Tony — who was appointed by DeSantis in 2019, then elected to the position the next year — has repeatedly talked of strengthening the agency’s ties with the community. And Holmes’ memo underscored the importance of continuing to do that.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office staff “should not put ourselves in a predicament that jeopardizes the commitment and hard work that our troops put in every day,” Holmes wrote. “We MUST continue to gain the trust of the community and the citizens that we serve without getting sucked into the chaos occurring around the country.”

Holmes’ email mandates that the captains share the information verbally with those in their command but they were not to circulate the email.

In addition to obtaining a copy of the memo, the Sun Sentinel obtained a three-page legal bulletin outlining what the changes in the law would mean. Deputies were told to read and acknowledge it. Such bulletins are standard for helping keep agencies well-versed about changes in Florida law.

Under the law, which went into effect Monday:

  • Anyone arrested must stay in jail without bond until their first court appearance, which could mean a day or more in jail. Typically, people accused of non-violent, low-level offenses are allowed to bond out of jail.

  • A riot is described as a public disturbance of three or more people in a disorderly or violent way.

  • A crime called aggravated rioting is created for cases in which nine or more people are assembled and are creating harm to people.

  • People cannot be held liable in civil court if they drive through protesters blocking a road.

‘Not for deputies to decide’

Civil libertarians and liberal South Floridians may applaud the Sheriff’s Office for its take on the law, given that the legislation’s opponents consider it unconstitutional and a way to silence the Black Lives Matter movement.

Legislative Democrats and local government leaders say the law is overbroad and vague. They believe it is meant to silence people who are calling for police reform and using their First Amendment rights to assemble.

Critics have said that, under the new law, anyone participating in a demonstration could get jailed if even one person was carrying on, destroying property or fighting.

But others are saying hold on: A new Florida law must be enforced, and you can’t cherry pick simply the ones you favor. Right or wrong, “the law is the law is the law,” said Eric Schwartzreich, a defense attorney who has represented law enforcement officers accused of on-duty crimes.

“The law, right or wrong, good or bad, doesn’t matter — it is not for the deputies to decide,” Schwartzreich said.

The rules for policing felonies is clear, Schwartzreich said: If law enforcement sees a law being violated, they must act. Discretion may be used with misdemeanors. That edict and the new law put deputies in a situation where they’re “damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” Schwartzreich said.

Jeff Bell, suspended leader of the union for Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies and lieutenants, said he got a call from a union member Wednesday night saying he was concerned by what he called mixed-messaging between the edict he was told by his superior and the legal bulletin that highlighted the changes to the law.

Schwartzreich said: “It is dangerous when police officers are put in this position about which felonies they are going to arrest people on. You cannot say, ‘Well, we don’t like this felony.’”

Law enacted swiftly

DeSantis floated the idea for the law last summer after a growing number of people took to the streets to draw attention to the number of unarmed Black men and women who had been killed by police. The Republican-dominated Florida Legislature ran with it. All but one House Republican voted in favor the bill.

Law enforcement officers flanked DeSantis when he signed the bill Monday, declaring it the strongest anti-riot, pro-police piece of legislation in the country.

Because the law went into effect immediately, it gave no time for training — as opposed to having a law take effect on July 1, which is the norm.

The timing, DeSantis noted Monday, allowed law enforcement to be “prepared” for massive demonstrations and potential civil unrest should there have been a not guilty verdict in the Minneapolis trial against Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. The jury began deliberating Monday after a three-week trial. Chauvin was found guilty of murder on Tuesday.

Florida did not experience widespread problems during the summer’s protests for racial equality. Lawmakers and the governor acknowledged such but went ahead with the legislation, which is already being challenged in court.

Eileen Kelley can be reached at 772-925-9193 or ekelley@sunsentinel.com Follow on Twitter @reporterkell

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