NC close to adopting stiffer penalties for rioting

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 9:38 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WRAL) - State senators on Wednesday approved harsher penalties for people who take part in riots.

WRAL reports that House Bill 805 is similar to other anti-riot laws passed around the country after last year’s protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. The measure would increase the punishment for inciting or taking part in a riot and would require those arrested to be held behind bars for up to 48 hours without bond.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore filed the bill after the riots that broke out during last year’s racial justice protests in Raleigh. The riots left cars and businesses burning, windows smashed and buildings defaced.

“I saw firsthand the violence and destruction caused by rioters right here in downtown Raleigh last year,” Moore said in a statement Wednesday. “Our rights to free speech and assembly are precious and must be preserved, but never at the expense of harm to others.”

The bill would raise the class of felony a person could be charged with for participating in a riot, especially if it leads to injuries or more than $1,500 in property damage. It also would create new penalties for inciting people to riot and for assaulting emergency responders, even if there’s no injury.

The bill also would allow people whose property was damaged to sue rioters for triple damages.

Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, said the bill clearly says that just being present near a riot is not a crime. A person would have to be overtly participating in it to be convicted.

“What this law is doing is it is keeping our cities safe, our property safe while also allowing folks to exercise their First Amendment right, their First Amendment freedoms, to protest,” Britt said. “We’re not talking about catching someone who’s an innocence bystander. ... We’re talking about somebody who was willfully engaging in damage to property [or] damage to persons.”

But critics of the bill say it’s meant to discourage people from peacefully protesting.

“This bill is not about fixing a real problem with our laws,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock ,D-Durham, who noted that North Carolina already has enough laws to punish rioters for causing damage or hurting someone.

Murdock said the bill gives police too much discretion to decide who’s rioting and who’s not. She called it an “anti-democracy bill” meant to discourage people from coming out to protest peacefully.

“We’re saying, ‘Don’t do it. Even if you remain peaceful, you could get arrested and spend two nights in jail. Your protests for change are not welcome here,’” she said. “It sends a message that will cause people to police themselves and simply stay at home.”

Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the bill “a flagrant attempt to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement and undermine the ability of North Carolinians to effectively advocate against police violence and systemic racial inequities in law enforcement.”

The measure passed the Senate on 25-19 party-line vote. It will go back to the House next week for a final vote before heading to Gov. Roy Cooper.

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