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DeSantis suspends state attorney who opposed prosecuting abortion, sex reassignment crimes

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Sanford, Florida, Monday, May 16, 2022.   (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
By Lawrence Mower Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for not prosecuting certain crimes, removing him from office and naming his replacement.

At a news conference flanked by police from around Tampa Bay, DeSantis said Warren has “put himself publicly above the law” by signing letters saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion.

“Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men,” DeSantis said.

The suspension, which stunned observers, removed one of the state’s most outspoken prosecutors. Warren, a Democrat, has been a frequent critic of DeSantis, including calling the Republican governor’s 2021 “anti-riot” legislation a misguided “solution in search of a problem” and questioning the need for an election security force proposed by DeSantis.

On Thursday morning, Warren was escorted out of his office. In the afternoon, he was set to host a news conference about a “major development” related to the case of Robert DuBoise, who was exonerated in 2020 after serving 37 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. After DeSantis’ suspension, Warren’s office canceled the event.

Warren, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference in downtown Tampa. He can appeal DeSantis’ decision.

DeSantis said Thursday that the decision to suspend Warren began when he noticed prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco selectively enforcing crimes. He said he asked his staff to look around Florida “to make sure that that was not going to happen here.”

After his staff spoke with police and prosecutors, Warren’s name repeatedly came up, DeSantis said.

“It all came back to this area here, in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County,” DeSantis said. “And the response that we got was a lot of frustration on the part of law enforcement for criminals being let go and crimes not being prosecuted.”

DeSantis’ order does not cite any specific examples of Warren not prosecuting individual cases, pointing instead to Warren’s public comments on abortion, transgender issues and office policies Warren has adopted.

But Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at Thursday’s news conference that police have had long-running frustrations with Warren for not prosecuting particular cases.

“I continue to work with my law enforcement counterparts who privately are frustrated with the state attorney, who seems intently focused on empathy for criminals and less interested in pursuing justice for crime victims,” Chronister said Thursday.

Thursday’s news conference included neighboring other police chiefs, including Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

“Andrew Warren is a fraud,” former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said. “This is a terrible day, that the governor had to come and clean up our mess.”

Under the state constitution, a governor can suspend state officials for misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties or commission of a felony.

DeSantis’ order cites neglect of duty and incompetence as the reason for Warren’s suspension, citing, in part, case law from 1937 in which a Tampa prosecutor was accused of not charging people for gambling offenses.

Warren, the order states, “demonstrated his incompetence and willful defiance of his duties,” citing:

— Warren signing on to a June 2021 “joint statement” with prosecutors around the country “to use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender- affirming healthcare or transgender people.” Although the state has not enacted such criminal laws, “these statements prove that Warren thinks he has authority to defy the Florida Legislature,” DeSantis wrote.

— Warren enacting a policy not to prosecute “certain criminal violations, including trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution.”

— Warren enacting a policy “against prosecuting crimes where the initial encounter between law enforcement and the defendant results from a non-criminal violation in connection with riding a bicycle or a pedestrian violation.”

“Warren has effectively nullified these Florida criminal laws in the 13th Judicial Circuit, thereby eroding the rule of law, encouraging lawlessness, and usurping the exclusive role of the Florida Legislature to define criminal conduct,” the order states.

As Warren’s replacement, DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez, a former county prosecutor whom DeSantis named to the bench last year.

DeSantis said he did not speak with Warren about his concerns before suspending him.

The governor’s decision was a stunning override of the the 369,129 Hillsborough County voters who cast their ballot for Warren in 2020, which made up 53.4% of turnout.

It also had echoes of a 2016 clash between former Gov. Rick Scott and Aramis Ayala, the state’s first Black state attorney, representing Orange and Osceola counties.

Ayala stunned many supporters and made national news when, just two months into office, she announced she would not be seeking the death penalty in any cases, including in the case of Markeith Loyd, who was charged with killing police Lt. Debra Clayton and Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Scott reassigned that case and 28 others to a neighboring state attorney’s office, but did not suspend her. Ayala is now running for attorney general.

Before Thursday’s bombshell, DeSantis’ most high-profile suspension of an elected official was Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, after his department’s failures during the Parkland mass shooting.

After problems in Broward and Palm Beach during the 2018 elections such as failure to meet ballot counting deadlines, DeSantis also suspended Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher. Technically, it was Gov. Rick Scott who suspended Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, though DeSantis only rescinded that so he could accept her letter of resignation.

In 2019, DeSantis also suspended the Superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools, citing grand jury reports that teachers were abusing special needs children at two schools in her district, and has suspended other local officials, including Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad, after they were charged with crimes.

Thursday’s news conference brought a jovial crowd, who laughed at Judd’s comments and stood to applaud DeSantis when he announced Warren’s suspension.

On Wednesday, DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, warned on Twitter that there would be a “MAJOR announcement” by the governor Thursday morning.

“Prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year,” she wrote.