Gov. DeSantis threatens to remove cases from prosecutors who balk at his new anti-riot law

By: - May 5, 2021 4:20 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis hands over a prop check at the Temple Terrace Fire Department on May 5, 2021. The Legislature has OK’d bonuses for first responders, but the governor hasn’t signed the new budget yet. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis warned Florida’s prosecutors not to go soft on enforcing his draconian new law against political demonstrations that get out of hand.

“Can a prosecutor just decide they’re going to ignore the law? The answer to that is no,” the governor said when asked about that possibility during a news conference Wednesday.

“You are duty-sworn to enforce the law and constitution in this state,” he said.

The new law in this case is legislation formerly known as House Bill 1, a so-called anti-riot/anti-protest bill that was the governor’s first initiative for the 2021 legislative session.

DeSantis acknowledged that prosecutors enjoy discretion when charging crimes — for example, to send offenders to criminal diversion programs.

But: “If you have a violent assembly and you throw a brick and hit a police officer, under our bill you’re going to jail. And that’s what needs to happen,” he said.

“And so, if a prosecutor says, ‘I’m going to ignore the law,’ then, obviously, we would be able to make sure those cases end up in a prosecutor’s office who is willing to follow the law.”

Democratic Florida House member Omari Hardy, reacting on Twitter, criticized the comments.

“Now DeSantis is describing prosecutors as ‘ignoring’ the law if they use their prosecutorial discretion to not charge suspects they think shouldn’t be charged, as if not using all their prosecutorial power in each and every case is somehow less than lawful,” he wrote.

“I would call DeSantis’s position dumb if it weren’t so shrewd. But it’s shrewd because it’s dishonest, and it’s dishonest because it’s pure demagogy. DeSantis will make a mockery of the justice system just to throw red meat to the base. Politics. Power. Ambition. That’s it,” Hardy added.

The Phoenix hasn’t seen any reports of reluctance by prosecutors to enforce the law, but the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has warned deputies to check with their chain of command before making arrests, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has reported.

The office doesn’t need “any overzealous deputies utilizing the new law to conduct enforcement that could violate people’s civil liberties,” Col. David R. Holmes, executive director for law enforcement, wrote in a memorandum that the newspaper obtained.

The new law, which DeSantis signed on April 19, boosts penalties for the existing crimes of violence and looting, including mandatory jail stays for people arrested at a gathering where something illegal happens and up to 15 years imprisonment for the worst kinds of disorder.

It also prevents local governments from reducing funding for law enforcement for any reason, even to pay for public-safety programs that police-reform advocates say pose less risk of violent encounters with the public.

DeSantis was in Satellite Beach to promote his promised $1,000 bonus program for first responders such as police, firefighters, and EMTs. The Legislature included the payouts in its $101.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year that opens on July 1.

That the Legislature hasn’t even sent him the budget bill yet, much less has DeSantis signed it, didn’t prevent the governor handing over oversized prop checks to first responders in Satellite Beach, Temple Terrace, and Fort Myers.

“Now the budget will need to be signed — we’re going to have to go through all the line items, it takes a little bit of time, there’s a lot of money at stake, but we will do that. And once that budget is signed and the funds get released, we’re going to start getting those checks out,” DeSantis said in Temple Terrace.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.