In September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a bill that critics argued would criminalize protests and create a chilling effect on demonstrations. As first proposed, the bill would have expanded the state's Stand Your Ground law and made it a crime to organize a protest that turned disorderly.
On Monday, the governor signed the bill into law — albeit with some changes. The state won't grant immunity to drivers who run over protesters blocking traffic, as originally proposed. Protest organizers will no longer face racketeering charges if a demonstration turns violent.
Still, Miami civil-rights attorney Melba Pearson says the law is problematic and paints "rioters" with a broad brush.
"I'm concerned about the fear people might feel about going to protests because they can't afford to get arrested for something they didn't do," says Pearson, who lost her bid for Miami-Dade State Attorney last year. "People may be less likely to organize and come out. We didn't move forward as a country without different groups organizing and advocating for their rights and for their needs. We wouldn't be a country right now if people didn't. To abandon these democratic principles for no good reason is really, really problematic."
So, what does the Combating Public Disorder Act say? We read it so you don't have to. (But if you do want to read the 61-page law, a full copy of the text is embedded at the bottom of this story.)
How is a riot defined?
The law says that a person "commits a riot" if they:
- Willfully participate in a violent public disturbance involving three or more people
- Act with the intent of helping each other in committing "violent and disorderly conduct"
- Cause injuries, property damage, or "imminent danger" of bodily injuries or property damage
The law also creates a charge for "aggravated rioting." A person commits aggravated rioting if, while participating in a "riot," they:
- Participate with 25 or more people
- Cause "great bodily harm" to someone not participating in the demonstration
- Cause property damage in excess of $5,000
- Display, use, threaten to use, or try to use a weapon
- Impede the movement of a car on a street or highway by using force or the threat of force
Charges and penalties for crimes are enhanced
Anyone arrested on charges of battery, aggravated battery, burglary, and theft at a protest that turns violent can have their charges enhanced by one level.
Protesters can't post bail until after their first appearance, which could take as long as 24 to 48 hours. Pearson, the civil-rights attorney, says that could lead to a person losing their job if they can't show up to work because they're incarcerated.
No "mob intimidation" allowed
Initially, DeSantis wanted to make it a crime for a protester to harass or intimidate someone at a restaurant or other public place. The law now makes it a first-degree misdemeanor for a group of three or more protesters to use violence or the threat of violence to try changing someone's point of view. The crime is punishable by a jail term of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000.
Drivers can sorta-kinda still hit protesters with their cars
A driver won't have immunity against prosecution for hitting a protester with their car, but they have some level of civil protection. If a driver feels threatened by a protester and runs them over, the law provides them with some defense mechanisms if they are sued.
Mandatory minimum sentence
If a protester is convicted of battery on a police officer "committed in furtherance of a riot or aggravated riot," they'll be sentenced to a minimum of six months in jail.
No destruction of memorials or historic properties
Last summer, seven people were arrested for vandalizing a Christopher Columbus statue in downtown Miami. Under the new law, anyone who damages a memorial or historic property would face a third-degree felony charge, punishable by up to five years in prison.
No publication of personal information allowed
The law makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to publish someone's personal identifying information online with the intent of them being hurt, harassed, or threatened. In Florida, first-degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail.
Pearson says that's the only silver lining in the new law, but she can see it being used nefariously by elected officials who don't want their email addresses or phone numbers released.
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