Federal Lawsuit Filed Challenging Florida’s Anti-Riot Law

According to the Orlando Sentinel, an Orlando civil rights attorney filed a federal lawsuit last Wednesday against Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Orange County Sheriff John Mina in what may be the first legal challenge to Florida’s “anti-riot” law that went into effect this week.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Orlando by attorney Shannon Ligon and Attorney Aaron Carter Bates on behalf of the Lawyers Matter Task Force, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The suit claims that the law, signed by DeSantis on Monday, violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

“The purpose of these laws are nothing more than an attempt to silence the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil organizations by limiting the ability to protest,” Bates said in a statement. “The First Amendment is a pillar of American democracy, and the ‘anti-riot’ laws clearly strip Floridians of their freedom of speech and right to assemble.”

A spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said “as it relates to Sheriff Mina, this lawsuit is without merit … Accordingly, we intend to file a motion to dismiss.”

A spokesman for DeSantis said the governor’s office had not yet been served with the suit, “but we will firmly defend the legal merits of [the bill], which protects businesses, supports law enforcement, and ensures punishment for those who cause violence in our communities.”

Moody’s office said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

DeSantis on called the law “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country” that would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters.

But Democrats and civil rights groups have criticized the law for infringing on the First Amendment’s right to peacefully protest. The ACLU claimed the law was “overbroad and vague” and would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

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The law also creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance. It creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation.”

“These statutes are unconstitutional on their face,” the lawsuit claims, because “they target protected speech under the First Amendment [and] they are written with the intent of defining any such protest as a ‘riot’ or participation in such protest as ‘inciting a riot.’”
The law also would subject those arrested to “excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishment as a means of hindering the speech of dissenting opinions,” the suit claims, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The law also exposes peaceful demonstrators to arrest for other people’s conduct and doesn’t describe what specific conduct would result in a charge of “inciting a riot,” violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process provision, the suit says.

It also claims the law is “discouraging” and “intimidating” for people who want to participate in protests.

Similar laws have been struck down on First Amendment grounds in other states. A federal judge blocked an anti-riot law in South Dakota in 2019, and in Virginia a court struck down a 1968 anti-riot provision in 2020.

DeSantis had pushed for the law since last year, claiming it was needed in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of then-police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. The law, one of the first to be signed by DeSantis this legislative session, went into effect just hours before Chauvin’s guilty verdict was announced.

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