Republicans in State Legislatures Look to Toughen Rioting Penalties

Protests in Indianapolis turned violent in May.

Protests in Indianapolis turned violent in May. Shutterstock

 

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Indiana is one of nearly two dozen states where proposals along these lines have emerged in the wake of last year's protests over racial justice and police misconduct. Critics are raising constitutional rights concerns.

People who riot in Indiana—and bystanders who let them do it—could be subject to criminal charges, fines and prison time under a proposed bill making its way through the state legislature.

Senate Bill 198—filed simply under “Rioting”—would authorize felony charges for people who injure or kill others or cause property damage while engaging in “tumultuous conduct.” The proposal would also require bystanders, including peaceful protesters, to either leave a gathering when it turns violent or report it to police. Violators would be subject to misdemeanor charges for “enabling rioting.” Critics say that the legislation raises First Amendment concerns.

The bill is one of a handful of proposals from Republican lawmakers that are designed to crack down on riots in Indiana, initiatives that proponents say are necessary in the wake of widespread protests last summer following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. In May, two nights of riots in Indianapolis left two people dead and more than $7 million in property damage and lost revenue.

Indiana is one of at least 22 states where Republicans are proposing such legislative changes, according to a Stateline report. Proposed initiatives include prohibiting local governments from slashing police budgets and granting legal protection to people who injure protesters. Civil rights groups, attorneys and Democrats have argued that the measures infringe on constitutional rights, but Republicans say the moves are necessary to ensure public safety.

In Indiana, state Sen. Michael Young, a Republican and author of the rioting bill, said the punitive measures he proposed are designed to discourage violent demonstrations that sometimes stem from otherwise peaceful protests.

“I wanted to find a way that we could protect the voices of the people who protest according to the rules … so our constitutional rights are protected,” he said Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee. “It’s also to punish those people who destroyed property … and also the people who aided and abetted those actions, and egged it on.”

As written, Young's proposal also gives mayors the power to enact a local curfew for three days, then to seek approval from the state to extend it for a longer period. Protesters who violate curfew after being asked to leave by law enforcement could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The proposal would also give the state attorney general authority to charge rioters if local prosecutors decline to do so, and grants prosecutors the right to use civil forfeiture to seize assets of out-of-state residents who either traveled to attend a protest that turned violent or bankrolled someone who did.

Democrats filed a number of amendments to the bill, including one to remove the penalties for people who financially support protest attendees and another to strike a provision that would charge protesters with felony murder if someone dies during a riot. 

The Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police supports the bill, while the Indiana Public Defenders Council opposes it. Michael Moore, assistant executive director of the public defenders council, told the committee it would be difficult to enforce the legislation without infringing on protesters’ First Amendment free speech rights.

“I don’t think there’s any way to amend the bill to make it palatable to those who defend the Constitution,” he said. “The bill essentially ignores the root causes of why people protest and goes to the aftereffects when some people turn and riot.”

The committee did not vote on the rioting bill, and also took no action on a separate proposal that would give business owners the right to use firearms for self-defense during violent demonstrations. But it did unanimously pass a measure to withhold state funding from cities that “fail to protect” public monuments and statues, and to require state police to help investigate people suspected of vandalizing those memorials. 

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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