FLORIDA, USA — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced a package of proposed laws directed at violent protests, which have surfaced in several U.S. cities this summer. The package calls for harsher penalties for protesters.
If approved, protestors arrested at gatherings that officials deem "violent or disorderly" could face felony charges. It would become a crime to obstruct traffic and would shield drivers from liability if they kill or injure protesters if they are quote “fleeing for their safety.” It also would stiffen penalties for attacking officers during protests, and allow the state to block funding for cities that de-fund police departments.
“We have a number of initiatives designed to protect citizens and taxpayers — one, we are not gonna permit localities to defund the police," DeSantis said durign a news conference on Monday. "If you defund the police then the state is gonna defund any grant or aid coming to you. And that applies to any municipality or local government across the state of Florida."
The governor said his proposals will be a “focal point” of the next legislative session, but attorney Matt Kachergus hopes they never become law.
The Jacksonville civil rights attorney explains the proposals are both vague and unconstitutional.
“Our governor would have our founding fathers all convicted felons, and doing minimum mandatory sentences based upon that same behavior. I think it's a complete disconnect between the principles upon which our nation are founded the first amendment," Kachergus said.
Kachergus sued the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office on behalf of four protesters arrested in late May and won a $100,000 settlement from JSO.
He said Florida hasn’t had any major “violent, disorderly” protests — like other cities, but he thinks the governor’s proposal probably has less to do with the rule of law than politics.
“I think the legislation on the whole is targeted at a specific population — people that are coming out to support the movement against systemic racism, and racism and policing in this country. And this is a direct response to that," Kachergus explained.
He believes these proposals could have a chilling effect on protesters First Amendment rights.
“No one's going to want to put their liberty at stake, if the government's going to crack down on their protest by rendering them convicted felons in some cases," the attorney said.
The governor conceded Florida hasn’t seen “disorder” on the scale of other cities, but says the state needs to be proactive – a posture endorsed by state law enforcement officials.
“The number one priority in government in the state of Florida is to protect people’s lives, their communities, their neighborhoods and their property,” District 65 Representative Chris Sprowls said Monday.
DeSantis’ full proposal can be found here.