RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A bill moving quickly through the North Carolina House of Representatives would create stiffer penalties for people engaging in riots, but civil rights groups are raising concerns that it could have a chilling effect on people’s constitutional rights.
Speaker of the House Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) filed a bill earlier this week that is up for a vote Monday.
In addition to calling for various crimes related to riots to be classified as felonies, his bill would also allow for a person who is arrested to be held for 48 hours and allows a property owner to sue for three times the amount of damage that’s caused.
Moore, who was in Downtown Raleigh when the riots occurred following the murder of George Floyd, told a House committee this week he wanted some time to pass from when that occurred before he filed the bill he’s now trying to pass.
“All this mayhem that occurred, sometimes the most you can get is a misdemeanor on some of these folks, and that’s just not right,” he said. “Whether it’s destroying a downtown or whether it’s going in and barging into the U.S. Capitol and taking over the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate floor, those things are not appropriate in a civilized society.”
The ACLU of North Carolina and other civil rights groups have come out against Moore’s bill, concerned it could have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected activity, in particular for people of color.
“This law would basically provide broad discretion to law enforcement to treat protesters as rioters and punish them severely,” said Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy with the ACLU of North Carolina. “It’s unnecessary and harsh.”
He described the existing riot law as “vague.”
It defines a riot like this:
“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.”
Moore noted his bill applies to someone who “willfully engages” in a riot, which he argued should mean it does not apply to someone protesting peacefully who happens to be in the area as someone commits a crime.
Bowes said a separate bill moving through the Senate, which makes a variety of criminal justice reforms and seeks to increase penalties against people involved in riots, makes a clearer distinction.
Senate Bill 300 includes a provision stating “mere presence alone without an overt act is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.”
Sen. Danny Britt (R-Columbus/Robeson), one of the lead sponsors of that bill, said he talked with Democrats and various stakeholders across the political spectrum about the matter try to better clarify the law.
He said his bill “makes existing law better as well so we’re less likely to catch up the individual who’s holding the sign and has no intent to do harm.”
That bill will likely be voted on in the Senate next week.