Nine Florida cities sue state over 'anti-riot' law

Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the bill (HB 1) during this spring’s legislative session as a way to crack down on violent protests.

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click to enlarge Nine Florida cities sue state over 'anti-riot' law
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Nine cities on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging part of a controversial new protest law that gives the governor and Cabinet the authority to override local governments’ decisions about police spending, arguing the measure unconstitutionally “strips municipalities of budget-setting authority.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the bill (HB 1) during this spring’s legislative session as a way to crack down on violent protests. DeSantis rolled out the framework for the legislation amid nationwide protests last year that called attention to racial disparities in policing. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The law, one of the legislative session’s most controversial issues, enhanced penalties and created new crimes in protests that turn violent. It has drawn a federal court challenge by a number of groups that allege it violates First Amendment rights and other constitutional protections. Calling it unconstitutionally “vague and overbroad,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in September blocked parts of the law from going into effect, prompting a state appeal.

The separate lawsuit filed Tuesday in Leon County circuit court focuses on a section of the law that sets up an appeal process when municipalities vote to decrease funding for police departments’ operating budgets.

Under the law, state attorneys or members of city councils or city commissions who vote against reductions can appeal the spending decisions to the state Administration Commission, which is made up of the governor and members of the Florida Cabinet.

“Once this appeal process has been triggered, the municipality loses control of its budget while the governor and Cabinet have full authority to revise the municipality’s police budget, line by line, behind closed doors, and without the level of community input widely guaranteed in the local budgeting process,” lawyers for Gainesville, Lake Worth Beach, Lauderhill, Miramar, North Bay Village, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Tallahassee and Wilton Manors wrote in Tuesday’s lawsuit.

The law “prescribes no legislative standards or limits to cabin the state executive’s revision of the local budget” and the rewritten budget is “binding on the local government, which must then figure out how to harmonize the state-mandated budget with actual local revenues and other obligations,” the cities argued.

At a bill-signing event on April 19, DeSantis defended the provision being challenged by the cities, which he said came in response to a nationwide movement to “defund the police” following Floyd’s death.

“This bill actually prevents against local government defunding law enforcement. We’ll be able to stop it at the state level,” DeSantis said at the time. “It’s an insane theory. It’s not going to be allowed to ever carry the day in the state of Florida.”

But the lawsuit said the measure “overrides the local legislative process” by giving the governor and Cabinet the ability to “re-appropriate local tax dollars” without any “guiding standards” or limitations, the lawsuit alleges.

“The governor’s statements show that he intends to use this tool whenever possible to further his own agenda and to remake local law enforcement budgets as he sees fit, with little regard for local processes and input,” the lawsuit said.

A dozen attorneys from the California-based Public Rights Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Community Justice Project and the Chicago-based Jenner & Block LLP firm are representing the cities in the case.

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