The Florida Senate on Thursday passed an “anti-riot” bill that would give civil legal immunity to drivers who hit protesters blocking a road, according to The South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The measure now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — who has championed the bill — for signature.
The hotly debated measure passed 23-17, largely along partisan lines.
The parts of the bill (HB 1 ) that most upset Democrats grant civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road; prevent people arrested for rioting or offenses committed during a riot from bailing out of jail until their first court appearance; and impose a six-month mandatory sentence for battery on a police officer during a riot.
DeSantis, when he unveiled the proposal, emphasized the need to prevent bail for rioters, so they aren’t able to rejoin the unrest.
Republicans have insisted that the measure is not intended to deter people from exercising their First Amendment right to protest, claiming the bill is only intended to keep people safe.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the bill wasn’t about politics, race or peaceful protests. Instead, it was meant to prevent riots that hurt or kill people and destroy property, she said.
“This bill is about preventing violence,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, sponsor of the Senate version of the measure.
Burgess was questioned by Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, about whether James Fields, a white supremacist who killed Heather Heyer during protests at Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, would have been granted civil immunity for her death under the bill.
Burgess noted the bill wouldn’t prevent criminal charges and the provision would only apply to people defending themselves from protesters, not those deliberately targeting them. Fields was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.
However, Democrats and advocates have accused Republicans of attempting to discourage and criminalize protests in the wake of nationwide unrest spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police last year.
During a conference call with reporters, Black Voters Matter co-founder and executive director Cliff Albright said the legislation is a backlash against the passion expressed by young people in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“And in response to that, for the state to say, we’re going to criminalize your activity. We’re going to criminalize your passion. We’re going to criminalize your protest. That’s not what democracy looks like,” Albright said.