JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The civil rights attorneys challenging a new set of state laws that create a new definition and increased penalties for rioting plan to file an injunction to stop the measures from remaining in effect.
The so-called anti-riot bill, actually titled the Combating Public Disorder bill, was passed by Republican lawmakers despite objections by Democrats and civil rights groups. It was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday.
Two days later, civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit calling the legislation “unconstitutional.”
“It is, on its face, the most blatantly unconstitutional document I’ve ever seen,” said Aaron Carter Bates, the attorney representing the Lawyers Matter Task Force, the group of civil rights attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the statutes “retaliate against” protesters “with excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as means to hindering the speech of dissenting opinions.”
Bates and other critics of the laws say the definition of riot under the legislation is too broad and open to interpretation.
“Under the bill, if we were all demonstrating for higher pay for teachers and some wacko came into the crowd and dropped a Molotov cocktail, we would all be on the hook for that act of violence as members of a riot,” said Bates. “People need to understand the ramifications of this bill.”
The legislation was originally introduced by state Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, with strong support from DeSantis.
“What I say to those critics is that they need to take a look at the old definition of riot, where it uses vague and ambiguous terms like terror of the people, tumultuous disturbance, unlawful enterprise,” said Fernandez-Barquin. “And you will see a stark contrast between the old definition and the new definition of riot, which is in this bill, which clearly says that the participants in a riot have to be willful participants.”
News4Jax asked Fernandez-Barquin what he will do to rectify the situation if the new definition of riot is misinterpreted.
“The intention of this bill is to not arrest innocent individuals. The intent is not to arrest peaceful protesters. The intent is to go after the bad actors, to go after the individuals who are trying to take advantage of the chaos in order to enrich themselves at the expense of innocent individuals,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “So that is something that I am absolutely open to seeing if this being misapplied. And if that is the case, I mean, that is something that I will gladly go to the speaker and something that I would definitely pursue to rectify that wrong. But I honestly believe that ... this is sufficiently narrowly tailored to make sure that innocent individuals are not arrested.”
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams and State Attorney Melissa Nelson have both declined to interview about their interpretation of the new statutes.