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Cuban protests potentially offer first test of Florida's new "anti-riot" law

Posted at 7:28 PM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-14 19:28:00-04

FORT MYERS — The protests against the Cuban government across Florida are providing the first real test of the state's new “anti-riot” law.

That law officially went into effect last month, and could mean protesters are at a greater risk of getting arrested or injured if they break the law.

Even though the majority of protesters have been following the law, some did spill into the roadway Tuesday night. That has led Florida Highway Patrol and the Fort Myers Police Department to let people know they will be out enforcing the law, for everyone’s safety.

"We support lawful assembly and the freedom of speech, but we need to make sure everyone stays safe," said Officer Daniel Aguilera with the Fort Myers Police Department.

That safety could be more important than ever. House Bill 1, otherwise known as the "anti-riot" bill, is now law.

Among its provisions, it says "HB 1 creates an affirmative defense available to a defendant in a civil action for personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage if the plaintiff’s injuries or damages were caused because he or she participated in a riot."

Justice Studies Professor Dave Thomas at Florida Gulf Coast University explained what that means.

"A driver can drive through and literally kill somebody, and that would be perfectly okay. They would be protected," said Thomas.

But Officer Aguilera said that’s not going to happen if people use common sense.

"If you see people moving into the roadway to just, don’t follow that group. Stay on the sidewalks and stay off the roadways," said Aguilera.

But the new law also gives officers the ability to arrest people involved in a protest if it turns into a riot, even if they weren’t the ones actually breaking the law.

That’s why Thomas said, people are watching how these protests are handled.

“That truly is going to be a test to see how agencies act, how they treat people," said Thomas.

FMPD says the protests have mostly been peaceful, and they hope it stays that way.

“As officers, as Cubans, we just want to make sure everyone is safe," said Officer Laynor Rodriguez.

So far, FMPD said it has not had to make any arrests at the protests.

Florida Highway Patrol also released the following statement:

"The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) is committed to the safety and security of Florida’s roadways and has made every resource available to respond to recent demonstrations – and will continue to do so. FHP is working in close coordination with local law enforcement to respond to and clear blocked limited-access highways as quickly and peacefully as possible.

The Florida Highway Patrol supports peaceful demonstrations; however, when demonstrators block roadways, they are endangering themselves, the public at large, and first responders."