DeSantis Suspends Tampa Prosecutor Who Vowed Not to Criminalize Abortion

MIAMI—Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida suspended the top prosecutor in Tampa on Thursday, accusing him of incompetence and neglect of duty for vowing not to prosecute those who seek or provide abortions.

In a starting announcement, Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, suspended from office Andrew H. Warren, the elected state attorney of Hillsborough County. In June, Mr. Warren, a Democrat, was among 90 elected prosecutors across the country who vowed not to prosecute those who seek or provide abortions after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Florida imposed a 15-week abortion ban in April.

The decision immediately raised concerns among Democrats, including Mr. Warren, who say that the governor has become increasingly heavy-handed.

Mr. DeSantis said that the abortion statement and other actions by Mr. Warren amounted to “incompetence and willful defiance of his duties,” and that the prosecutor’s approach to the job left Mr. DeSantis with no choice but to suspend him.

“When you flagrantly violate your oath of office, when you make yourself above the law, you have violated your duty, you have neglected your duty and you are displaying a lack of competence to be able to perform those duties,” Mr. DeSantis said to cheers at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, where he was flanked by a gaggle of uniformed sheriffs and police chiefs.

The suspension of Mr. Warren, a rising Democratic star and frequent DeSantis critic who is serving in his second term as the chief prosecutor for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County, evidently came as stunning news even to his office, which had planned a Thursday afternoon news conference to announce a development in a cold murder case. The conference was canceled after Mr. DeSantis announced Mr. Warren’s suspension on Thursday morning.

Mr. Warren said in a statement that his suspension “spits in the face of the voters.”

“Today’s political stunt is an illegal overreach that continues a dangerous pattern by Ron DeSantis of using his office to further his own political ambition,” Mr. Warren said, adding, “The people have the right to elect their own leaders — not have them dictated by an aspiring presidential candidate who has shown time and again he feels accountable to no one.”

The law enforcement officials who appeared with Mr. DeSantis expressed frustration with Mr. Warren for not prosecuting certain crimes. “Andrew Warren is a fraud,” said Brian Dugan, a former chief of the Tampa Police Department.

The sheriffs and police chiefs took turns praising Mr. DeSantis and criticizing liberal-leaning cities — New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco — by name. Anti-abortion groups also applauded Mr. DeSantis.

“Want to know why some people are moving to Florida?” Mr. DeSantis said. “Because their communities are no longer safe, thanks to prosecutors who think they know better.”

Even in a state where governors and prosecutors have been known to tussle in the open, Mr. DeSantis’s intervention — and his trumpeting of it — left officials in Florida flabbergasted. Under Florida law, a governor can suspend state officials for wrongdoing that includes neglect of duty, incompetence, malfeasance, drunkenness or commission of a felony. Mr. DeSantis’s Republican predecessor, Rick Scott, tended to suspend elected officials only after they had been charged with a crime.

In 2017, when Aramis D. Ayala, a Democrat who was then the state attorney in Orlando, started the state by saying she would not seek the death penalty in any cases, Mr. Scott reassigned more than two dozen cases to another state attorney’s office . But he did not suspend Ms. Ayala, who did not seek her re-election after her term and is now running for Florida attorney general.

Mr. DeSantis has been much more aggressive. Shortly after taking office in 2019, he suspended Sheriff Scott Israel of Broward County, a Democrat, faulting him for his handling of the mass shooting at a Parkland high school in 2018, even though Mr. Israel had not been criminally charged. Mr. Israel unsuccessfully appealed his suspension to the courts and the State Senate and later lost a re-election bid.

Mr. DeSantis is up for re-election in November and has faced growing criticism from Democrats that his approach to governing has become increasingly authoritarian. On Thursday, the two leading Democrats vying to challenge him, Representative Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, reacted to Mr. Warren’s suspension by referring to Mr. DeSantis in statements as a “wannabe dictator” (Mr. Crist) and to “dictator” (Ms. Fried).

Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, who put out the statement against criminalizing abortion that Mr. Warren signed in June, called his suspension “an unprecedented and dangerous intrusion on the separation of powers and the will of the voters.”

“Governors don’t hand pick elected prosecutors, the voters do,” she said in a statement. “With this outrageous overreach, Gov. DeSantis is sending a clear message that the will of the people of Hillsborough County matters less than his own political agenda.

Mr. Warren was elected to a second four-year term with about 53 percent of the vote in 2020. He was one of many prosecutors who were backed in 2016 by groups supported by the billionaire liberal investor George Soros. Mr. DeSantis did not name Mr. Soros on Thursday but seemed to allude to him, saying that Mr. Warren had run a campaign funded by out-of-state donors. Mr. DeSantis himself has amassed a campaign war chest brimming with out-of-state donations.

“Criminalizing and prosecuting individuals who seek or provide abortion care makes a mockery of justice,” Mr. Warren and the other prosecutors said in their joint statement in June. “Prosecutors should not be part of that.”

Mr. Warren had previously criticized Mr. DeSantis for enacting anti-protest legislation and creating an election crimes office.

In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. DeSantis cited a second statement from Fair and Just Prosecution that Mr. Warren signed that pledged not to criminalize “transgender people and gender-affirming health care.”

“I don’t think the people of Hillsborough want to have an agenda that is basically woke up, where you’re deciding that your view of social justice means certain laws shouldn’t be enforced,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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