ACLU of Florida says legal observers will be critical in light of ‘anti-riot’ law

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After the guilty verdict was announced Tuesday in the case of former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, demonstrations took place across the country.

As the verdict was read, a rally was taking place in Jacksonville to call for the names of nine Duval County schools, including Robert E. Lee High School, to be changed. American Civil Liberties Union legal observers were in attendance.

According to the ACLU, legal observers do not participate in protests but act as “neutral observers of law enforcement in the protests. They keep notes, document events.”

Kara Gross, legislative director of the ACLU of Florida, says they will be critical in light of the so-called anti-riot bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed into law.

The controversial legislation enhances penalties for various crimes committed during a riot, including burglary, theft, assault and battery of law enforcement. It also allows authorities to hold protesters until a first court appearance and establish new felonies for organizing or participating in a violent demonstration.

“The discussions about this being anti-mob or anti-riot, that’s really just the rhetoric that the bill sponsors and supporters are using,” Gross said. “But if you actually look at what the bill language does is it criminalizes peaceful protesters who are just exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Elements of the law drawing the most criticism are the definitions of rioting and aggravated rioting.

“It is impossible for individuals to know how to conduct themselves in order to not be arrested. Under this law, the language can be interpreted in so many different ways,” Gross said. “For example, the definition of riot alone is very broad and very vague and could allow for the arrest and charge of an individual with committing a riot five years in prison and loss of voting rights, even if they didn’t engage in any violent conduct.”

Proponents of the bill say the bill will only target violent protesters and mobs seeking to intimidate people and harm businesses.

It’s still unclear how the new law will be interpreted in action.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Melissa Nelson have both declined News4Jax’s requests for interviews to further discuss the impact and interpretation of the law.

Williams did issue a statement on the day it was signed, saying: “I am very pleased that our Governor has demonstrated yet again his support for law enforcement in signing House Bill 1 – the Anti-Riot Bill. Jacksonville, along with the rest of the state is ready to work together to build stronger bridges of trust and cooperation while maintaining public safety.  Public Safety is paramount for everyone in Florida – our families, our neighbors and our businesses.”

On Wednesday, a federal lawsuit was filed, arguing that the legislation unconstitutionally seeks “to arrest the peaceful expression of free speech.”

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