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OPINION

Governor proposes crackdown on 'violent assemblies'

Special to the Times

On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced new legislation to stop violent assemblies and protect law enforcement. The proposed “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” creates new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who target law enforcement and participate in violent or disorderly assemblies.

“Our right to peacefully assemble is one of our most cherished as Americans, but throughout the country we’ve seen that right being taken advantage of by professional agitators, bent on sowing disorder and causing mayhem in our cities,” said DeSantis. “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida. The legislation announced today will not only combat rioting and looting, but also protect the men and women in law enforcement that wake up every day to keep us safe.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, flanked by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, speaks to the media during a press conference at the PCSO Operations Center in Winter Haven on Monday. DeSantis unveiled a plan to deal with violent, disorderly protesters.

“Peaceful protesting is a constitutional right, but looting and disorderly rioting are not,” said Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson. “We will continue to stand with our brave law enforcement officers as they protect and serve. This bill is a way to ensure that all Floridians can live in a safe and secure environment. I commend Governor DeSantis for his commitment to public safety.”

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“Violence and destruction are the tools of terrorists, not reformers,” said House Speaker-Designate Chris Sprowls. “We live in a country founded on the power of words, and no group of self-appointed activists and anarchists can be allowed to deprive others of their life, liberty or property. I’m proud to stand with Governor DeSantis to say that in Florida we will respect the right of people to protest peacefully while defending the rule of law.”

The act has components, outlined below:

New Criminal Offenses to Combat Rioting, Looting and Violence

Prohibition on Violent or Disorderly Assemblies: 3rd degree felony when seven or more persons are involved in an assembly and cause damage to property or injury to other persons.

Prohibition on Obstructing Roadways: 3rd degree felony to obstruct traffic during an unpermitted protest, demonstration or violent or disorderly assembly; driver is Not liable for injury or death caused if fleeing for safety from a mob.

Prohibition on Destroying or Toppling Monuments: 2nd degree felony to destroy public property during a violent or disorderly assembly.

Prohibition on Harassment in Public Accommodations: 1st degree misdemeanor for a participant in a violent or disorderly assembly to harass or intimidate a person at a public accommodation, such as a restaurant.

RICO Liability: RICO liability attaches to anyone who organizes or funds a violent or disorderly assembly.

Increased Penalties

Mandatory Minimum Jail Sentence: Striking a law enforcement officer (including with a projectile) during a violent or disorderly assembly results in a six-month mandatory minimum jail sentence.

Offense Enhancements: Offense and/or sentence enhancements for throwing an object during a violent or disorderly assembly that strikes a civilian or law enforcement officer; assault/battery of a law enforcement officer during a violent or disorderly assembly; and participation in a violent or disorderly assembly by an individual from another state.

Citizen and Taxpayer Protection Measures

No “Defund the Police” Permitted: Prohibits state grants or aid to any local government that slashes the budget for law enforcement services.

Victim Compensation: Waives sovereign immunity to allow a victim of a crime related to a violent or disorderly assembly to sue local government for damages where the local government is grossly negligent in protecting persons and property.

Government Employment/Benefits: Terminates state benefits and makes anyone ineligible for employment by state/local government if convicted of participating in a violent or disorderly assembly.

Bail: No bond or bail until first appearance in court if charged with a crime related to participating in a violent or disorderly assembly; rebuttable presumption against bond or bail after first appearance. 

“Protesting is a basic constitutional right of free speech, which I wholeheartedly support,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “Violence, rioting, looting, and vandalism are illegal acts - not rights. Nothing else matters if you and your children aren’t safe. Crime is at a 48-year-low in the state of Florida and we intend to keep it that way. Criminals who destroy and tear down our communities and victimize others must be held accountable, through quick action and swift punishment. We are sending a message that we will not sit back and allow violence to run amuck, and we will arrest violent criminals, and those who loot, riot, and vandalize – guaranteed.”

“It’s my honor to stand in support with Governor DeSantis today,” said Florida Sheriffs Association President and Gilchrist County Sheriff Bobby Schultz. 

“On behalf of the Florida Police Chiefs Association and over 900 of Florida's top law enforcement executives from across every region of the state, we thank Governor DeSantis for his strong leadership and dedication to maintaining public order and keeping the peace,” said Florida Police Chiefs Association President and Satellite Beach Police Department Chief Jeff Pearson. “The measures he put forth today are urgently needed to protect the lives and property of every Floridian."