WEST MIAMI-DADE, FLA. (WSVN) - A 7News legal expert believes police officers could be setting a legal precedent in regards to enforcement of a recently-signed Florida law that prevents protesters from blocking roads following rallies in support of the Cuban people.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what he called an “anti-riot bill” in April that prohibits protesters from blocking public roadways.
“Every citizen is entitled to not only have a valid law, but that it be applied equally,” 7News Legal Expert Howard Finkelstein said.
Protesters on Tuesday blocked the Palmetto Expressway in both directions for 10 hours. Florida Highway Patrol troopers and Miami-Dade Police officers stood on the highway with protesters as they held signs and chanted.
Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ spokesperson, admitted to the Miami Herald that the protesters were “breaking the law” when they got on the highway.
In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter demonstrators created a similar sight, and it prompted Florida’s Fighting Public Disorder Act. The Miami-Dade NAACP has called for lawmakers to repeal the act, while others are asking for more enforcement.
“Here we saw people marching. We saw people blocking the interstates, the roadways,” Miami-Dade NAACP Executive Committee Member Rawsi Williams said. “We saw cars obstructed, but we did not see a very, very aggressive police response, and the only difference in those people were the race of the people.”
“We watched it play out going against what House Bill 1 says, where you cannot obstruct public roadways,” Miami-Dade NAACP President Daniella Pierre said. “You cannot obstruct public highways.”
Finkelstein said officers could be creating a legal precedent when it comes to enforcing the anti-riot law.
“In the future, if protesters of a different race or a different ethnicity are treated differently, you will hear arguments that this is a violation of equal protection, and it’s selective enforcement,” Finkelstein said. “That would make it unconstitutional and illegal.”
Retha Boone-Fye, of the Miami-Dade Black Affairs Advisory Board, released a statement on the protest that read, “We believe that local residents of all backgrounds have the right to peacefully protest in making their voices heard. We also expect that law enforcement’s response will be equally applied to any protesters or protests in the future.”
When Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava was asked about why the law was not enforced, she said, “We believe in free speech, and demonstrations, peaceful ones, are very, very important to communicate things that we think are so important, just like fighting for freedom and liberty in Cuba.”
Finkelstein said if authorities do not equally enforce the law and make arrests at future protests, lawyers could argue to have it thrown out.
“Is it written in language that is so overbroad that it allows the police to arrest people who were involved in legitimate First Amendment-protected protests? If so, that law is not valid,” Finkelstein said.
FHP released a statement in response to Tuesday’s protests:
“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.”
Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez and the department’s public information office have not responded to 7News’ inquiries about Tuesday’s protest.
Civil rights groups said they will try to block the anti-riot law in court.
Copyright 2021 Sunbeam Television Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.