Gov. DeSantis signs anti-riot bill imposing harsher criminal penalties on violent protesters

Backed by law enforcement from all over Central Florida at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the governor signed his controversial anti-rioting bill into law on Monday. The measure is meant to stiffen penalties on violent protesters.

"It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country. There is nothing close," said Governor Ron DeSantis.

The new law stiffens penalties for people arrested during a riot, makes it illegal to topple statues or monuments, and creates a new kind of crime known as mob intimidation.

Mob intimidation could include disturbing diners during a disturbance, which happened in St. Pete, or blocking a roadway during a demonstration, which happened in Lakeland.

The law also blocks cities and counties from defunding the police, and penalizes them if they tell law enforcement to stand down during a riot.

"If you tell law enforcement to stand down, then you’re responsible for the damage that ensues, and if someone has been harmed or their property has been destroyed, then they can sue you (the municipality) for compensation," said DeSantis.

Opponents say the legislation is overly broad and can be easily misused.

"This bill left just enough room for prosecutors to abuse the law to criminalize the mere presence at a large public gathering where other people are doing something wrong," said Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.

Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk is also highly critical of the law.

"It just gives law enforcement the ability to terrorize anyone who is protesting peacefully," commented Pastor Carl Soto of BLM Restoration Polk.

Soto says his organization is looking into possible legal action.

In attendance during Monday's signing was Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, alongside other law enforcement officials. Senate President Wilton Simpson, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senator Danny Burgess, and Representative Juan Fernandez-Barquin were also present during the signing of HB 1.

Judd provided visual examples capturing moments during a riot and a peaceful protest. 

"Pay attention, we got a new law and we're going to use it if you make us. We're going to protect the people," the sheriff said. "We saw folks' businesses around this nation who literally worked their entire life and had every penny in their life savings involved. We’re going to proactive and we’re going to make sure people are safe."

Millions of Americans took to the streets following the death of Floyd, a 36-year-old Black man who died in May after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes. Chauvin is now on trial for Floyd’s alleged murder.

The Senate devoted nearly three hours Thursday to an emotionally charged debate on the measure with a single Republican --- Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg --- ultimately crossing party lines and joining Democrats in voting against the bill.

MORE: DeSantis one-on-one: The governor shares views on several controversial bills

"You can’t have any violence in the state of Florida. I think signing that bill will give us more reinforcements to make sure," DeSantis previously said. "But I think Floridians draw the line, you know, we want robust debate- if you want to go out there and make your voice be heard, do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the minute you see someone’s business start to get trashed, someone get assaulted. That’s totally unacceptable."

Last week, the Florida Senate signed off on the controversial protest bill, HB 1, sending it to the governor's desk. 

The bill also addresses the destruction of "memorials," an issue that has drawn heavy attention after statues of people associated with slavery were torn down or destroyed following Floyd’s death.

The bill would create a new felony crime that would prohibit people from defacing, damaging, destroying or pulling down memorials or historic property if the damage is more than $200. The bill would require people convicted of the crimes to pay for restoration or replacement of the property. 

HB 1 would also set up a citizens appeal process when cities and counties try to reduce police budgets in response to riots. However, those who oppose the bill says that it does seem to fall silent on consequences for police officers during riots.

The measure also would create a new felony crime of "aggravated rioting" that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

"Welcome to Florida," Sheriff Grady Judd said. "There’s a reason that this place is fun. There’s a reason why we have a 49-year low crime rate."

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report