Florida Supreme Court rules riot law doesn’t apply to peaceful protestors at violent demonstrations

by | Jun 20, 2024

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state’s riot statute does not apply to individuals who are merely present at a violent protest without participating in or intending to support violent conduct.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state’s riot statute does not apply to individuals who are merely present at a violent protest without engaging in or intending to assist in violent conduct.

The case was predicated upon a challenge to Florida’s amended riot statute, which was brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Florida Supreme Court was asked whether the statute could be used to prosecute individuals present at a violent protest who did not participate in or intend to support violent and disorderly conduct, ultimately concluding it could not.

“At bottom, the question is whether that law applies to a person who is present at a violent protest, but neither engages in, nor intends to assist others in engaging in, violent and disorderly conduct,” the Court’s ruling states. “And the answer is: no, it does not.”

Florida’s laws against riots have a long history, dating back to its early days as a U.S. territory, with historical definitions requiring a tumultuous disturbance of the peace by three or more persons acting with a common intent in a violent manner. This common-law definition persisted until 1967, when the Florida Legislature removed the formal definition, leading courts to rely on historical interpretations.

In 2021, the Legislature passed House Bill 1, titled the “Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting, and Law Enforcement Protection Act.” Among its provisions, HB 1 amended state law. Under the new statute, a riot involves willfully participating in a violent public disturbance involving three or more persons with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct, resulting in injury to another person, damage to property, or imminent danger thereof.

The bill also introduced new crimes, such as aggravated rioting, and required that individuals charged with these crimes be held until a bail hearing.

Following the enactment of HB 1, a coalition of civil rights organizations, including Dream Defenders and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit to prevent parts of the measure from being enforced. They argued that the statute was overly broad and vague, potentially criminalizing peaceful protestors. The federal district court agreed, issuing an injunction against the statute’s enforcement.

The Eleventh Circuit then sought clarification from the Florida Supreme Court on interpreting the statute. The Supreme Court focused on three main questions: the definition of a “violent public disturbance,” the intent required for a conviction under the statute, and whether mere presence at a protest that turns violent constitutes participation in a riot.

The court first examined the term “violent public disturbance,” concluding that a violent public disturbance must involve an assembly of three or more persons acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent conduct, resulting in injury, property damage, or imminent danger thereof, aligning with the historical understanding of riots as violent disruptions of public peace.

“Under the statute, a violent public disturbance is characterized by harm to persons or property, and not by peacefulness,” the justices mused in the order.

The court then addressed the intent requirement, clarifying that to obtain a conviction, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to engage in or assist others in violent and disorderly conduct. The statute’s language—specifically the phrase “willfully participates”—requires intentional, knowing, and purposeful involvement in the violent disturbance. This ensures that individuals cannot be convicted of rioting based solely on their presence at a protest where violence occurs.

“[T]o obtain a conviction … the State must prove a defendant acted with intent to assist others in violent and disorderly conduct,” the Court’s ruling states. “A peaceful protestor, under the most natural reading of the statute, is no rioter.”

Finally, the court ruled that mere presence at a protest that becomes violent does not constitute participation in a riot. To be guilty of rioting, an individual must engage in or intend to assist in violent conduct. This interpretation protects peaceful protestors from being unfairly prosecuted under the riot statute.

Justice Jorge Labarga concurred with the majority’s conclusion but opined that the statute’s ambiguity and advocated for applying the rule of lenity, which requires ambiguous criminal statutes to be interpreted in favor of the accused.

“A narrow interpretation of “violent public disturbance” is essential to ensure that prosecutions involving violations of the statute do not capture the peaceful, nonviolent exercise of First Amendment rights nor criminalize the mere presence at or lawful participation in an otherwise peaceful assembly or protest,” he wrote.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody praised the decision.

“I look forward to the Eleventh Circuit likely reversing Judge Walker’s decision on Florida’s Riot Act given the Florida Supreme Court’s decision today,” she said in a prepared statement. “As Gov. Ron DeSantis and I have said since the beginning, the Riot Act (HB1) was aimed at those who were engaging in or assisting those engaged in violence or disorderly conduct, not peaceful protesters. I am grateful that the Florida Supreme Court agreed with that commonsense reading of an unambiguous statute.”


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