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North Carolina Senate advances House riot penalties bill

North Carolina General Assembly

RALEIGH, N.C. — Legislation that would toughen punishments for violent protests — a response to 2020 demonstrations over racial injustice that at times turned into tumult — advanced in the North Carolina Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's vote to recommend the House bill brings the General Assembly closer to a potential veto showdown with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who two years ago successfully blocked a similar measure with a veto. But Republican seat gains in the fall elections, combined with some bipartisan support for the bill in the House, raises the possibility of an override.

Last month in the House, six Democrats joined all Republicans present in voting for the measure, which is being shepherded by Speaker Tim Moore, as was the 2021 version. The House margin, if left intact, would be veto-proof. Senate Republicans already hold a veto-proof seat advantage in their chamber.

This year's measure now must clear one more Senate committee before it goes to the chamber floor.

Moore's up-close views of rioting and looting in downtown Raleigh in June 2020, amid otherwise peaceful protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, continue to serve as a backdrop for him to seek changes to the rioting statutes.

Under the new measure, punishments already in place to willfully participate in a riot or incite one — and to incur serious injury or property damages during a riot — would increase. And there would be a new felony crime when participating in a riot leads to a death.

The bill would also let property owners whose businesses are damaged during protests seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damage. And new bond and pretrial release rules for defendants accused of rioting or looting would have a judge set those conditions within 24 hours. Bill supporters have complained that otherwise, defendants can be released immediately by a magistrate.

Moore also mentioned the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021 in explaining that such laws would also apply to other forms of violence. But he said that the events of 2020 in Raleigh and elsewhere in the state show the need for tougher laws as a deterrence.

“This is not a solution in search of a problem,” Moore told the committee. “This is to strengthen our laws that, if heaven forbid something happens again ... in our state that there’ll be laws on the books, that there’ll be teeth there so that those who do this can be held accountable.”

As with the House discussion last month, representatives of social justice and civil rights groups criticized the measure as an effort to squelch opposing viewpoints.

“The impact will be to stifle the voices of the most marginalized communities. Make no mistake about it,” said Kerwin Pittman, a criminal justice advocate and organizer with Emancipate NC, adding that peaceful protesters wrongly arrested could lose their jobs if they are forced to be held for 24 hours.

“The lessons from these protests are not that police officers or prosecutors need more crimes to arrest people for,” said Liz Barber with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “This is part of a general trend of overcriminalization.”

Nine states have passed similar protest laws since June 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law. North Carolina is among several states currently considering new penalties.

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association supports the bill, according to Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, the group's president.

In his message vetoing the 2021 bill, Cooper said legislation was “unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

Along with Moore and others, a chief sponsor of this year's bill is Democratic Rep. Shelly Willingham of Edgecombe County. He is a former Washington, D.C., police officer who said he has been on the streets during periods of unrest.

“I know that 99% of the people who are out there demonstrating or protesting, they’re legitimate and doing the right thing,” Willingham said. “But it’s that 1%, or that small group that come out for the wrong reason.”

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