RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina Senate passed a bill that increases penalties for rioting and looting in the state.
House Bill 805 would charge people with a felony for causing significant property damage or serious bodily harm during a riot.
The state Senate passed the bill 25-19.
“I saw firsthand the violence and destruction caused by rioters right here in downtown Raleigh last year,” Speaker Tim Moore (R) said. “What this bill does is enforce harsher penalties for the perpetrators of violence and looting, while preserving every North Carolinian’s right to protest peacefully.”
The bill comes a year after protests in downtown Raleigh turned violent and resulted in the destruction of property. Those against it said it goes against what they protested for last year, which is police accountability and criminal justice reform.
“This bill is a retaliation against the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Angaza Laughinghouse with the ACLU.
“What this law is doing is it is keeping our cities safe, our properties safe, while allowing folks to exercise their First Amendment freedoms to protest,” Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said during floor debate. He spoke before the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on a 25-19 vote split along party lines.
But many Democrats and civil rights groups fear the measure could have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly rights by instilling fear among activists and dissuading them from going into the streets to voice their frustrations.
Among many things, the bill allows business owners to sue people who damaged their property for three times the actual damages they incurred, as well as court costs and attorneys’ fees. Protesters who assault emergency responders would be charged with a more serious felony, even if the victim was not physically injured.
Additionally, those charged with rioting or looting could be held in jail for up to 48 hours, conditions similar to those placed on defendants charged with domestic violence.
“It sends a message that will cause people to police themselves and simply stay at home,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat.
The bill now returns to the House. If the Republican-controlled chamber backs the latest version of the measure passed by the Senate, it would head to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for his consideration.
The governor expressed concern with House Bill 805 during a news conference last week. He said he wanted lawmakers to adopt policy recommendations from a task force he commissioned that were outlined last year to address racial inequity in the state’s criminal justice system.
A separate bill given final legislative approval this week and now on his desk includes some of those recommendations — mainly as it relates to police conduct — but leaves out other far-reaching changes.
“We should not have riots, and people who take part in riots should be prosecuted. That needs to be said first,” Cooper said in the news conference. “But, also, we made significant proposals about racial equity in the criminal justice system and some important common-sense changes that need to be made, and that bill doesn’t include any of them.”