TAMPA, Fla. — Florida lawmakers on Wednesday started debating HB-1, known as the "Combating Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act."
The bill is a top priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis who says state law needs to be tougher when it comes to violent protestors and those who would defund the police.
Critics say the state already has laws on the books to prosecute violent offenders, and the bill would only erode First Amendment rights.
Among those critics is Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who wrote a letter to state lawmakers asking them to ignore what he calls “misleading rhetoric” behind the bill.
“This is a solution in search of a criminal justice problem,” Warren said. “There are so many things wrong with this bill it’s hard to know exactly where to begin.”
Warren says the proposed law doesn’t provide any new tools to help identify and prosecute lawbreakers who riot, loot or commit violence. Instead, he said, it chips away at First Amendment freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly - creating guilt by association.
“If, for example, you go to a Bucs game, and there are 50,000 people there, and after the game, a bunch of people are celebrating the win or mourning the loss together, and a handful of people do something bad, this law would make it so that every single person who is there at that public disturbance is guilty of participating in a riot,” Warren said. “That is ridiculous.”
During his recent State of the State speech, DeSantis made it clear HB-1 is one of his top legislative priorities.
“We saw cities ruined by violent mobs. Law-enforcement was targeted, and lawlessness prevailed. This was not and must never be tolerated in the state of Florida,” he said, referring to last summer’s unrest.
The bill expands who can be charged as a felon during protests and gives law enforcement broader arrest powers. It also makes it harder for local governing bodies to “defund” the police.
“Anybody should be concerned when government is encroaching little by little on our rights to free speech, free assembly,” Warren said. “This is going to have the effect of discouraging people from freely exercising those rights, and that’s probably the biggest problem.”
If passed, Warren says the law would likely be challenged in the courts.
He concedes it’s unusual for prosecutors like himself to get involved with political matters at the state level. But in this case, Warren says, he felt compelled to say something.
“The reality is that there are a lot of good deals floating around in Tallahassee that address real criminal justice problems with serious solutions,” Warren said. “This isn’t one of them.”
The bill passed the Judiciary Committee by a 14-7 vote.
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