Newly signed Florida law cracks down on highway protesters, protects drivers acting in self-defense

On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into a law a bill to increase penalties against highway protesters and to strengthen protections for drivers who injure or kill a person participating in a protest on a roadway.

DeSantis signed the “Combatting Public Disorder Bill,” or HB1, into law during a Monday press conference in Polk County. The bill went into effect immediately after it was signed.

“If you riot, loot, harm others, particularly law enforcement, you’re going to jail. We’re not going to end up like Portland,” DeSantis said.

The new law includes multiple wide-ranging measures designed to crack down on public rioting, including the creation of specific crimes for mob intimidation and cyber intimidation, creating new penalties for destroying monuments and historic property, and increasing the penalties for offenses like assault, battery, battery on a law enforcement officer, criminal mischief, burglary, and theft when these crimes are committed during or in furtherance of a riot. The law includes provisions to protect police departments form defunding.

HB1 also contains measures to increase the penalties for individuals who “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road.” Under the new law, the former misdemeanor crime of blocking the highway became a felony, with possible penalties of 15 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

From HB1:

“A person commits aggravated rioting if, in the course of committing a riot, he or she: 766 (a) Participates with 25 or more other persons; (b) Causes great bodily harm to a person not participating in the riot; (c) Causes property damage in excess of $5,000; (d) Displays, uses, threatens to use, or attempts to use a deadly weapon; or (e) By force, or threat of force, endangers the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway, or road. A person who commits aggravating rioting commits a felony of the second degree…”

“We also have penalties for people who commandeer highways. You’re driving home from work and all the sudden you have people out there shutting down a highway. There needs to be swift penalties, that just cannot be something that can happen,” DeSantis said.

The law would also provide civil protection for drivers who strike and injure or kill a highway protester in self-defense.

Civil rights groups have spoken out against the HB1, arguing that the law infringes on free speech. Kara Gross with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “This bill is a direct response to the peaceful protests last year in the wake of the George Floyd murder. It is designed to silence, criminalize and penalize those protesting for racial justice. The intent of it is to silence dissent.”

During the spring and summer of 2020, multiple members of the trucking community were unwillingly caught up in protest activities and civil unrest.