RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Civil rights groups raised concerns Tuesday about legislation aimed at increasing penalties for people engaged in riots as state lawmakers try to negotiate an agreement to send to Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
Following the riots that occurred in Raleigh and other cities in the days following the murder of George Floyd, the House and Senate have passed bills seeking to crack down, saying they’re trying to deter that kind of violence from happening again.
During a day-long virtual session, Advance Carolina and a variety of other groups warned that the House bill could have a chilling effect on people’s First Amendment rights to protest.
“It’s not actually representative of the state, so why would you create a blanket bill that harms our folks?” asked La’Meshia Whittington, of Advance Carolina, a non-profit group “with a mission to build political and economic power in Black communities and institutions in North Carolina.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R) has been one of the most vocal proponents of stiffening penalties for those engaged in riots after he witnessed the violence in Raleigh in May 2020.
“When these happen, they (should) be treated as very serious crimes. We saw what happened in downtown Raleigh. We saw what happened in Charlotte, where people’s businesses were destroyed, where folks were injured,” he said.
In addition to allowing for more serious felony charges, his bill also would allow for people arrested to be held in jail for up to 48 hours, which Moore said is meant to prevent them from returning to the scene of a riot.
“They truly want to use this law to unconstitutionally hold people in jail,” said Ann Webb, senior policy counsel of the ACLU of North Carolina.
The bill passed 88-25 and is awaiting action in the Senate.
“This is a common-sense approach that protects property, that protects life, that protects folks from being assaulted,” Moore said.
Whittington said she’s concerned about the “vague” definition of a riot in existing law. It reads, “A riot is a public disturbance involving an assemblage of three or more persons which by disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct, results in injury or damage to persons or property or creates a clear and present danger of injury or damage to persons or property.”
She said people who are protesting peacefully could be lumped in with those acting unlawfully and face serious charges.
“Someone could be in jail overnight or for a longer period of time. That’s not what we need when we’re just going out to protest and say these are my concerns. This is a historical movement that we’ve done,” she said, adding the legislation could disproportionately impact people of color.
“We don’t need laws that blanket every community when each community isn’t the same.”
The Senate has unanimously passed a broader criminal justice reform bill that also includes increased penalties for engaging in a riot. A House committee is scheduled to consider it Wednesday. As far as the riot provisions are concerned, Republicans say they’re trying to reconcile the differences to send a bill to Cooper that would ultimately be constitutional.