The North Carolina House approved a bill Monday that legislators said would prevent riots and civil disorder.
House Bill 805 would harshen penalties for rioting and inciting a deadly riot. It also lets owners of property damaged during a riot sue for damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees.
The measure, sponsored by a group of Republicans led by House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, was filed in response to local and national demonstrations last summer after the police killings of unarmed Black people and the Capitol riot in January.
Moore said several North Carolina businesses were destroyed and looted during the summer demonstrations.
“In North Carolina, we saw many instances of individuals going and committing massive property damage, destroying businesses already suffering from the closure and reduce business because of COVID-19. To come in and find their businesses and the property absolutely destroyed [and] individuals assaulted,” Moore said. “In fact, some of the folks who got assaulted were some of the people who were, in fact, there for those peaceful protests that turned into this.”
Under HB 805, people who “willfully” incite or “urge” others to engage in a riot could face the state’s most serious misdemeanor charge and up to 150 days in jail and a fine. If the damage from that riot exceeds $1,500 and causes serious bodily harm, they could face up to 88 months in prison – or more than seven years incarcerated. Rioters, in that case, could face up to 59 months – or nearly five years of jail time.
HB 805 also makes it a felony to possess a weapon during a riot, and suspects arrested under the law would have to wait to see a judge to be granted bail.
The measure also creates a new offense for when a riot results in death. Just engaging in a riot that leads to a fatality could lead to an 88-month sentence. However, a person who incites or encourages someone to participate in a riot that leads to a death could face 17 years in prison.
Some lawmakers said Monday the bill gets too close to infringing on North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights to protest peacefully.
Moore said the bill would not penalize people attending a protest that happens to turn into a riot. The House unanimously approved an amendment Monday that added language to the bill that further clarifies that exemption under First Amendment rights.
The amendment by Rep. Brandon Lofton, D-Mecklenburg, states: “Mere presence alone without an overt act is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.”
Even with the amendment, Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a retired judge, said the bill blurs the line between rioters and looters and those exercising their First Amendment rights to protest.
“If I am marching downtown and three blocks ahead of me someone takes a baton and smashes out a window and enters the store because I am also marching, am I going to be liable to be charged with a felony rioting”? Morey asked. “What is an overt act? I think the amendment greatly improves the bill but is chanting, an overt act. We don't know.”
An overt act can be clearly identified by evidence, according to its legal definition.
The House approved the bill, 88-25. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.
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