Higher penalties for rioting advance in North Carolina House

North Carolina

(Courtesy of Kerwin Pittman via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Punishments for rioting in North Carolina would be increased and new criminal counts created for mayhem resulting in death in legislation approved by a House judiciary committee on Thursday.

The measure was pushed personally by chief sponsor House Speaker Tim Moore. He cited both the destruction of property in North Carolina cities linked to some demonstrations following the May 2020 death of George Floyd and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as reasons for the bill.

Moore has a condominium in downtown Raleigh and witnessed smashed windows, fire and looting there in the aftermath of otherwise peaceful protests against racial injustice. Other state legislatures have considered or passed more stringent rioting laws this year.

Whether in Raleigh or Washington, “those things are not appropriate in a civilized society,” Moore said. “We are a nation of laws, not a nation of mob rule. And regardless of the political spectrum one comes from, we all have to be able to say that’s not right.”

State law already makes it a misdemeanor to willfully participate in a riot or inciting one. It becomes a felony when serious injury or property damage incurred exceeds $1,500, with active prison time possible on a first offense. The punishments for these crimes would rise under the legislation, including a new felony crime when participating in a riot leads to a death.

The measure also would allow property owners whose businesses are damaged in a riot to seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damage. And new bond and pretrial release rules for rioting and looting defendants would have a judge set those conditions within 48 hours. Bill supporters have complained defendants can otherwise be released immediately by a magistrate.

Democrats on the committee worried aloud whether the bill would increase the risk that otherwise peaceful protesters could face charges just by getting caught up in violence incurred by others.

The American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina sees the measure as “unnecessary, unreasonably harsh” and stifling the constitutional right to protest, said Daniel Bowes, the state chapter’s director of policy and advocacy. Melissa Price Kromm with the North Carolina Voters For Clean Elections told the committee that legislation surfacing in North Carolina and elsewhere are “anti-Black Lives Matter bills. They are not about protecting the peace. They’re about silencing dissent.”

The bill could reach the House floor early next week. The Senate is debating a separate police reform measure that would contain some changes to criminal riot laws.

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