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House Bill Increasing Penalties For Rioters Advances

YE Florida 2020 in Review
Wilfredo Lee
In this May 30, 2020, file photo, a protester on a bicycle rides past a burning police car during a demonstration next to the city of Miami Police Department in Miami. Protests were held throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25

A bill increasing penalties for crimes committed during protests is advancing in the legislature. Governor Ron DeSantis is promoting the bill after nationwide protests against police violence last year. The measure is receiving flak from those who believe it targets Black Lives Matter.

Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin (R-Miami) says the bill ratchets up crimes that already exist in state law.

"The majority of my bill takes crimes that are already illegal like the following: assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, battery of a law enforcement officer, burglary, and theft and puts it in the context of a riot," said Fernandez-Barquin.

Specifically, the bill would make current penalties harsher if committed by a group.

"We have to strengthen our laws when it comes to mob violence. To make sure that individuals are unequivocally dissuaded from committing violence when they are in large groups," said Fernandez-Barquin. "We need to hold individuals to a higher sense of responsibility hence the harsher sentences."

The bill also creates a new offense called aggravated rioting. It’d be applied to groups of nine or more that cause harm, block roadways, or cause property damage. Many of those things were done this summer during protests in response to the officer-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Fernandez-Barquin was asked what prompted the bill.

"Watching videos of people being accosted just sitting with their families having dinner," said Fernandez-Barquin. "One particular incident that actually occurred in my district, in District 119 in South Florida in West Kendall which was the desecrating a statue of Jesus Christ five blocks away from my house at the Church of Good Shepherd."

Tallahassee activist Lauren Brenzel isn’t buying it.

"This bill is a clear response to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Which will go down in our nation’s history as a major stride in the civil rights movement," said Brenzel. "Yet, some politicians choose to vilify this moment because of an unwillingness to recognize the importance of Black lives and the relationship between policing and racism."

Brenzel isn’t alone. Democrats on the committee agree. Rep. Michael Grieco (D-North Bay) says it’s a solution to a non-existent problem.

"Florida has a lot more than 99 problems and this bill doesn’t solve any of them," said Grieco. "People across the political spectrum are angry and dissatisfied with government and this bill just gives them another reason to feel that way while chilling their desire to speak out."

Rep. Dianne Hart (D-Tampa) says it’ll disproportionately impact Black Floridians.

"This gives bad actors in law enforcement and the criminal justice system additional weapons to harm, incarcerate and kill black and brown Floridians," said Hart. "These changes to the criminal justice laws are unnecessary. I believe law enforcement has tools in place to punish wrongdoers already. And there’s no demonstrated need for these changes."

When Governor Ron DeSantis rolled out the proposal in September even some Republicans were skeptical. Then the insurrection at the Capitol took place on Jan. 6 and DeSantis used the event to highlight the need for harsher laws. The new narrative gained support from the party and the legislation was filed the same day. Brenzel says it’s just being used to distract from the original intent.

"The shift in narrative to attempt to relate the Capitol insurgency as reasons to why this legislation is needed is a rewriting of history," said Brenzel.

Provisions in the bill also make cyber intimidation a crime. It would penalize anyone who publishes someone’s personal information with the intent to threaten, intimidate, or harass that person. The action is known as doxing. The bill would make it a first-degree misdemeanor.

While the bill received heavy criticism, Representative Grieco believes it’s likely to pass since Republicans have the majority in both the House and Senate.

"You all are in charge. You can run whatever bill you want and there’s not much I or my colleagues can do about it," said Grieco. "But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should."

The bill has two more stops before reaching the House Floor. The Senate bill is assigned to be heard by the criminal justice committee, which is chaired by a Democrat. Miami Senator Jason Pizzo. When asked by the Florida Bar News he indicated he’d hear the bill, saying when things are controversial and may be heated and of great interest, they should be put on the agenda.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.