City joins lawsuit challenging ‘anti-riot bill’

Tallahassee to joins a lawsuit against state legislators. Photo courtesy: Florida Sun Sentinel

A small shout and the sound of applause broke the solemn tones of Wednesday’s Tallahassee City Commission meeting after commissioners unanimously decided to join a coalition of cities throughout the state that are challenging House Bill 1, arguing it is unconstitutional.

The city’s lawsuit would focus primarily on HB 1’s provision that allows Gov. Ron DeSantis to alter city budgets if local governments decide to decrease police funding.

Just weeks ago, city commissioners increased the budget of the Tallahassee Police Department by $30 million. But they said Wednesday they hope to overturn the legislation passed earlier this year and its “egregious overstep” on home rule, as described by Commissioner Jack Porter.

“The city of Tallahassee, being the capital for the state of Florida, [is] accustomed to leading and … I think that it is proper that we send a message to the rest of the state that we don’t think it’s OK either,” said Commissioner Diane Williams-Cox, who seconded the motion to file.

HB 1, often referred to as the “anti-riot bill,” was passed by the Legislature in April. It mainly defines and addresses public disorder and lays out several penalties for related crimes, notably making it a felony to engage in a “riot.”

Many opponents of the bill argue that it is racially motivated, following protests after the George Floyd killing in May 2020, and an unconstitutional act that would limit residents’ First Amendment right to protest.

Several members of the public pleaded with the  commissioners to take action against the Florida House of Representatives.

Stanley Sims, a Tallahassee resident, urged the commissioners to take action against HB 1, which he said “divided the community.”

“This bill is not even applied equitably,” Sims said. “A red truck ran into peaceful protesters and the state attorney did not file charges. Nineteen Tallahasseeans sat down peacefully and were charged.”

As a result of the vote, City Attorney Cassandra Jackson will “enter in a professional services agreement” with a team of attorneys, assembled by the Public Rights Project, that will represent a coalition of cities in the lawsuit pro-bono.

Jonathan Miller, litigator and legal director at PRP, said the lawsuit is planned to be filed in state court in three weeks.

So far, eight cities are part of the coalition. They include: Gainesville, Lake Worth Beach, Lauderhill, Miramar, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Wilton Manors, and Tallahassee.

“We believe some others are poised to join us as well, and we are confident that we are going to build a growing coalition of cities to challenge HB 1,” Miller said.

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