SB 138: Over-Criminalizing Riot Offenses
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Rioting is a serious offense that can result in needless physical violence and destruction of property. And after the events of last summer, when some police protests turned into riots, it’s obvious why lawmakers feel the need to step in and push back on rioters who ruin otherwise peaceful protests for everyone.
But one attempt to accomplish this goes too far.
Senator David Hinkins is sponsoring Senate Bill 138 which institutes a third-degree felony for an individual if, during the riot, they cause bodily injury or property damage. It also institutes a mandatory minimum for first offenses, raising the jail time from 90 to 180 days for a first and second offense and from 180 to 270 days for any subsequent offense. This is overly punitive and there is no evidence that doubling mandatory minimum penalties, especially for first-time offenders, will do any good for public safety or for the individual offender.
The bill also expands the criminal definition of harassment to include those who communication verbally “or through overt action” their ability to cause property damage or injury to another person. This is another needless expansion of the law which is overly broad and can be interpreted in various ways depending on the prosecuting attorney. Criminal laws should be written more specifically to ensure we aren’t criminalizing people who don’t deserve to be jailed.
The bill then allows for a penalty enhancement from a class B to class A misdemeanor if the defendant was participating in the riot and the harassment was committed against an individual who was not participating in the riot. This will be especially tricky to try to prosecute in court because of the blurred lines between peaceful protests and violent riots – many of which start as peaceful protests with some who defect.
And for perhaps the most troubling part of the bill, SB 138 would also shield an individual from criminal or civil penalties if they cause injury or death to an individual while fleeing from a riot “under a reasonable belief that fleeing is necessary to protect” themselves and their occupants from serious injury or death. This is extremely troublesome because it brings the bar far too low for individuals to be able to legally kill others in an already high-stress and chaotic situation.
The bill also changes the bail statute to deny bail as a matter of right for those who are accused — and still presumably innocent — of creating substantial property damage or bodily injury.
Bail is a constitutional right. It should only be denied in the most egregious of cases —not for crimes that are serious but more uncomfortable due to recent events — and there must be substantial evidence to support the charges, and also clear and convincing evidence the individual isn’t likely to appear for court.
Rioting is a serious criminal matter and should be treated as such, but this bill has too many flaws that can be misused and misapplied to be an effective tool for its stated purpose.