The North Carolina Senate approved a bill Wednesday aimed at preventing riots and civil disorder in the state.
House Bill 805 would harshen penalties for rioting and inciting a deadly riot. If a suspect is convicted, it lets owners of property damaged during a riot to sue for damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees.
“What this law is doing is keeping our cities safe, our property safe while also allowing folks to exercise their First Amendment rights, their First Amendment freedoms to protest,” Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, said.
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 U.S. Capitol riot in January.
It cleared the Senate on Wednesday with a 25-19 vote. The House approved the bill, 88-25, on May 10 with harsher penalties for inciting a riot that causes bodily harm. The Senate version was sent back to the House on Wednesday for final approval.
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 under HB 805. If the damage from that riot exceeds $1,500 and causes serious bodily harm, rioters could face up to 59 months in prison.
The House version of the proposal increased the sentence to 88 months for people inciting or encouraging others to participate in a riot that leads to more than $1,500 in damages and causes serious bodily harm.
Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, is calling on the House to reject the bill.
“House Bill 805 is a flagrant attempt to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement and undermine the ability of North Carolinians to effectively advocate against police violence and systemic racial inequities in law enforcement,” Bowes said in a statement. “This bill imposes more severe criminal penalties for vaguely-defined rioting offenses and the same enhanced pretrial conditions that apply to defendants charged with capital murder.”
HB 805 makes it a felony to possess a “dangerous” weapon during a riot, and suspects arrested under the law would have to wait up to 48 hours to see a judge to be granted bail.
The measure also creates a new offense for when a riot results in death. 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. It also increases the penalty for physically harming emergency personnel.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill said it gets too close to infringing on North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights to protest peacefully.
“If this bill were to become law, it could have a chilling effect on North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights by dramatically increasing the risk that protesting could lead to significant prison time,” Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, said Wednesday.
Backers said the bill would not penalize people attending a protest that happens to turn into a riot. Current law does not specify that the acts must be done “willfully.”