By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
When Gov. Ron DeSantis removed and replaced Tampa-area State Attorney Andrew Warren last month, he said he acted because Warren had essentially gone rogue – declaring publicly that he would not waste resources to prosecute abortion providers or doctors who provide gender-affirming care to transsexual youth or their parents.
“As a result of his open and notorious repudiation and nullification of Florida law, as well as his blatant defiance of the Florida Legislature, Warren can no longer be trusted to fulfill his oath of office and his duty to see that Florida law is faithfully executed,” says DeSantis’s Aug. 4 executive order removing Warren as Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor.
Yet DeSantis did not act last year after Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony showed similar public defiance about enforcing the anti-riot law enacted in the wake of nationwide protests demanding justice following the 2020 deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY at the hands of police.
That controversial law, known as state House Bill 1 or the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” redefined a riot, established new crimes for “mob intimidation” and “cyber intimidation,” and increased penalties for crimes committed during a “violent assembly.” DeSantis signed the get-tough law in flamboyant fashion on April 19, 2021.
Within days, the Sun-Sentinel, CBS12 in West Palm Beach and other news outlets obtained an internal Broward Sheriff’s Office email instructing deputies to steer clear of enforcing the anti-riot law without specific approval from higher-ups.
The email was sent by Col. David Holmes, BSO’s executive director of law enforcement, to the agency’s district captains saying the new anti-riot law could hurt BSO’s relations with the community. BSO does not want “overzealous deputies utilizing the new law to conduct enforcement that could violate people’s civil liberties,” Holmes wrote, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
The news stoked local public debate. And on April 30, 2021, Sheriff Tony discussed his thoughts about the anti-riot law on the Brian Mudd Show on WIOD radio.
“I spoke early on about my opposition against it, meaning that we didn’t really need any other legislation to do our job. There’s a multitude of different legislation that has been on the books for decades and we’ve been effective handling any type of civil unrest. So, in my opinion, there was no great need for it here in Broward County. The community felt the same way,” Tony said.
Gov. DeSantis, who personally hatched the idea for the anti-riot law, said nothing.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker barred DeSantis, Tony and sheriffs in Leon and Duval counties from enforcing the anti-riot law in September after several civil rights groups, including Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, sued, arguing it violated constitutional equal protection and First Amendment rights. DeSantis appealed and the 11th Circuit in Atlanta heard oral arguments in March. A decision is expected before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Florida’s anti-riot law is gaining international notoriety. Last week, the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed its concern about “reports of increasing legislative measures and initiatives at the state level that unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly following anti-racism protests in recent years, such as the HB 1 Combating Public Disorder law in Florida.”
Also last month, suspended State Attorney Warren sued Gov. DeSantis in federal court to get his job back.
Warren, elected twice by voters, argued DeSantis violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and abused his power by removing him from office for political reasons.
DeSantis replaced Warren, a Democrat, with local Judge Susan Lopez, a Republican who promptly said she would revoke many of Warren’s policies.
ETHICS COMMISSION AND TONY
And Monday marks the date when Sheriff Tony will have exactly 28 months remaining in his four-year term. Rumors have been flying lately that DeSantis has had enough of Tony’s tumultuous reign as sheriff and wants to remove him. Beginning Tuesday, state law grants DeSantis the power to replace Tony should he decide to remove him.
The latest hint of the governor’s possible intentions came Friday when it was learned that on Sept. 9 Florida’s ethics commission will consider the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s case against Tony for repeatedly lying under oath while obtaining driver’s licenses.
Ethics commission staff has conducted its own investigation of the FDLE’s case and will make a presentation with recommendations to the commission in a non-public session. The commission will report its decision at a later public meeting.
The frequently lethargic ethics commission’s seemingly aggressive posture in Tony’s case has surprised some in law enforcement. Knowledgeable sources, noting the timing, took it as a sign that DeSantis gave the ostensibly independent ethics commission his blessing to proceed.
“All he needs is an excuse if he’s going to do it,” one source said.
Tony is currently fighting the same charges of lying under oath before Florida’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. In June, a three-member CJSTC panel found “probable cause” to believe the allegations against Tony were true and that his license to be a police officer should be revoked.
In that case, Tony has invoked his right to a full administrative hearing in Tallahassee. The case has not yet been filed at the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH).