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Florida Supreme Court ponders definition of a riot in 2021 state law

Lawsuit alleges that new law deterred Black-led groups from organizing and conducting protests out of fear of risking criminal liability.

Published: October 9, 2023 11:03pm

(The Center Square) -

The Florida Supreme Court is pondering the definition of a riot related to a law passed in 2021 designed to prevent violent protests like those seen in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, Jacksonville/Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams, and Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony were named as defendants in the 2021 lawsuit filed by Dream Defenders and other social justice groups including Black Lives Matter.

The lawsuit alleges that House Bill 1 successfully deterred Black-led groups of Floridians from organizing and conducting protests out of fear of risking criminal liability for speaking out.

Oral arguments took place on Oct. 4 in the Florida Supreme Court. According to a report from Action News Jax, during proceedings, James Tysse, the attorney representing Dream Defenders, claimed the law uses vague language that potentially puts peaceful protestors at risk.

"It’s about whether or not individuals were willing to go out and risk being arrested without the possibility of bail for exercising their First Amendment rights, and in that context, I think vagueness and confusion has particular salience," Tysse said during court proceedings Wednesday.

The lawsuit further states that the law amends the definitions of terms like "riot" to extend beyond common-law roots by permitting the arrest, detention, and prosecution of protesters not engaged in criminal conduct.

Attorney Sonya Harrell, representing Jacksonville County Sheriff Mike Williams, said the statute does not prohibit peaceful protest. At the same time, attorney Nicolas Meros who represents the DeSantis Administration also reiterated this point.

The 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Atlanta sent the lawsuit to the state Supreme Court in January to certify the legal question of how to define a riot. This is a seldom-used legal procedure in which a federal court returns a question to a jurisdictional court for clarification.

In the bill’s text, HB 1 defines the third-degree felony offense of riot, which is defined as a person who willfully commits or participates in a violent public disturbance with three or more people who are assisting each other in violent or disorderly conduct that results in injury to another person, property damage, or imminent danger of injury to a person or property.

The bill also created a second-degree felony offense of aggravated rioting, which includes participating in a riot with 25 or more people, causing great bodily harm to a person not participating in the riot, threats and/or attempts to use a deadly weapon or force, causing property damage greater than $5,000, and endangering the safety of vehicles on public roads, streets, and highways.

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