Gov. DeSantis seeks new penalties for violent protesters

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The state of Florida is going to get tough on people who engage in violence during protests, Florida’s Republican governor said Monday in announcing new legislation.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said his proposed legislation will impose felony-level penalties on anyone who damages property, causes injury or destroys public property during a protest.

“Recently in our country we have seen attacks on law enforcement, we’ve seen disorder and tumult in many cities,” DeSantis said.

Florida’s Legislature won’t begin its annual 60-day session until March, so it’s somewhat unusual for the governor to announce a legislative proposal so far in advance. But DeSantis has the support of incoming Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson and House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls, along with local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

Democratic leaders criticized the measures as a ploy to help President Donald Trump’s re-election bid. Florida’s 29 electoral votes are a key to Trump’s re-election and polls show a tight race with former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The governor is attaching himself to Donald Trump’s propaganda and manufacturing a non-existent law and order crisis in Florida,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson. “It’s political fearmongering to bolster a president’s re-election bid.”

A Tampa activist also questioned the governor’s motives.

“The right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This is an attempt to chill legitimate dissent and somehow equate protests against police killing Black people with criminal activity despite the clear evidence that the protests occurring in Florida are overwhelmingly peaceful,” said Kelly Benjamin, co-founder of Tampa for Justice.

DeSantis said he supports the right to hold peaceful protests.

Under the proposal, felony charges could be filed against: anyone participating in an assembly that results in property damage or injury; anyone who obstructs traffic during an unauthorized protest; anyone who topples a monument or destroys public property during a violent protest.

It would also be a misdemeanor to harass people at places like restaurants during a disorderly protest.

“You see these videos of these innocent people eating dinner and you have these crazed lunatics just screaming at them and intimidating them,” DeSantis said. “You’re not going to do that in the state of Florida.”

He is also proposing a mandatory minimum six months in jail for anyone who strikes a law enforcement officer during a protest.

People arrested during a violent protest would be held without bail until at least their first court appearance. He pointed to the ongoing protests in Portland, which he said involved the same people getting arrested and released.

“They get their mugshot taken and then they get released, and it’s like a carousel. On and on it goes. Now that’s not going to happen here in Florida,” DeSantis said.

Legislation would also strip municipalities of state money if they defund law enforcement and lift a $200,000 cap on lawsuits against local governments that don’t take appropriate action to protect people and property.

While DeSantis said Florida hasn’t seen the type of violent protests that have occurred in other states, he said he wants to make sure they don’t happen.

“We need to do more in terms of a strong legislative response so we do not always have to play whack-a-mole any time you have situations like this develop,” DeSantis said.


AP writer Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.