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Florida Governor Eyes Racketeering Laws to Charge Protesters

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JULY 07: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus held at the Pan American Hospital on July 07, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Gov. DeSantis spoke about the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state of Florida.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
By Richard Dahl on October 06, 2020 1:24 PM

If you're familiar with RICO laws, you probably have images of weird-named gangsters from Jersey being trundled off to jail.

RICO, as you may know, stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. This law went into effect nationally in 1970 as a tool giving enforcers the power to go after people who are connected to a criminal enterprise even though they may not have personally committed a crime.

At first, it was aimed at the Mafia, so the guys who ordered the hit men to whack someone or who handled dirty money could go to jail along with their red-handed colleagues in crime.

The use of RICO laws has expanded beyond mob crackdowns in the decades since, but never in quite the way that Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is currently proposing. On Sept. 21, DeSantis unveiled his “Combatting Violence, Disorder and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act" proposal aimed at getting tough on disorderly protesters, and included in its extraordinarily bold measures is one involving RICO.

Here is what it says: “RICO liability attaches to anyone who organizes or funds a violent or disorderly assembly."

Extremely Tough Language

Note that the proposed law doesn't say anything about conditions or circumstances, such as whether a cop or a counter-protester caused the violence. It just says that if you fund or organize a protest in Florida and it turns violent for any reason, you could be heading for the slammer.

There's a lot more tough talk in DeSantis' proposed law. For instance, it calls for third-degree felony charges for anyone who obstructs traffic during a violent or disorderly assembly, while absolving anyone “fleeing for safety from a mob" in their vehicle for any injury or death.

In other words, it's a bit like a vehicular version of Florida's “Stand Your Ground" law for firearms use, which provides shooters the excuse that they opened fire simply because they felt threatened. Incidentally, it's already a practice that's not exactly unusual; since May 27, at least 100 incidents of people driving cars into protesters have been recorded, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago.

Critical Reactions

Even though Florida has seen very little of the disorder that has occurred in many other states, many Republicans and law enforcement officials have voiced support for the measure.

“I think it's getting ahead of a potential problem," said Stuart, Florida, police chief Joseph Tumminelli. “It's put the word out that law enforcement in the state of Florida specifically is not going to tolerate issues such as looting, rioting, violence … against police officers."

The problem, according to critics, is that DeSantis' proposed law may be unconstitutional.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Florida issued a statement calling DeSantis' proposal “undemocratic and hostile to Americans' shared values" and “an unconstitutional bill that would chill free speech.“

“These tactics are about as unconstitutional as it gets," said Bacardi Jackson, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Even some law enforcement people are less than enthusiastic. Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren had this to say: “If the goal is to balance between protecting people's First Amendment rights and public safety, that's a laudable goal. But a lot of these proposals appear to be political theater that won't have any real impact in addressing the problems that lead to the violent protests we're all trying to prevent."

Following AG Barr's Lead?

In ratcheting up the tough talk, DeSantis appears to be following the lead of Attorney General William Barr. In mid-September, Barr told federal prosecutors that they should get tougher with protesters and consider charging them with sedition, a crime generally associated with government overthrow.

Barr's suggestion drew widespread condemnation, including a barb from Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano, a former judge, who called it “absurd" and “a bridge too far."

A successful prosecution of sedition would require prosecutors to prove that there was a conspiracy against the government, and doing so is “virtually unheard of" in the U.S., Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, told USA Today.

We live in combative times, so maybe we'll be hearing of its use against American citizens soon. And maybe Florida lawmakers will decide to enact DeSantis' law despite assessments from critics that it will be tied up in lawsuits for years to come. DeSantis has called for the legislature to pass the bill next month after the general election.

Meanwhile, if you choose to exercise your First Amendment rights to protest, it may be wise to leave the area if the protest turns violent. It also may be wise to write down or memorize the number of a criminal defense lawyer in your locale and carry it with you.

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