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DeSantis Floats Protest Penalties, Withholding State Money For 'Defunding Police'

Gov. Ron DeSantis
The Florida Channel
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Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday he is proposing legislation that would cut off state grant funding to local governments that "slash" law enforcement budgets, as part a bigger plan aimed at curbing violent protests.

Called the Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act, the legislation would create new criminal offenses and increases penalties for those who 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 in an email to WJCT News. “I will not allow this kind of violence to occur here in Florida. 

DeSantis didn't elaborate on his "professional agitator" assertion, but historically the term has been used broadly to discredit protests.

A host of law enforcement officials around the state say they support the governor’s initiative.

“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 in the same email.

The American Civil Liberties Union was quick to condemn the move, saying it would criminalize protesters and city governments that are demanding police accountability.

“This effort has one goal: silence, criminalize, and penalize Floridians who want to see justice for Black lives lost to racialized violence and brutality at the hands of law enforcement,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida in an email to WJCT News.

The plan would create new criminal offenses aimed at combatting rioting, looting and violence:

Prohibition on Violent or Disorderly Assemblies: 3rd degree felony when 7 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.

It would also come with increased some penalties:

Mandatory Minimum Jail Sentence: Striking a law enforcement officer (including with a projectile) during a violent or disorderly assembly = 6 months mandatory minimum jail sentence.

Offense Enhancements: Offense and/or sentence enhancements for: (1) throwing an object during a violent or disorderly assembly that strikes a civilian or law enforcement officer; (2) assault/battery of a law enforcement officer during a violent or disorderly assembly; and (3) participation in a violent or disorderly assembly by an individual from another state.

Financial penalties would also be leveled:

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.

DeSantis said he looks forward to working on the bill with the Florida Legislature when the next annual session begins in March of 2021.

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.