Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Riot bill stiffens punishment on protestors, has enough votes to override governor veto

Wilmington Police riot officers walk down Chestnut Street during a late May protest. Weeks later, three WPD officers were fired weeks later after unintentionally recorded conversations went public revealing racist and violent language. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Wilmington Police riot officers walk down Chestnut Street. (Port City Daily/File)

Update: This bill went into effect after Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Legislation increasing penalties for rioting and civil disorder gained approval by the North Carolina Senate on Wednesday, despite multiple attempts to curb its contents. 

House Bill 40 was brought forth by Republican Charles Miller, who represents portions of New Hanover and Brunswick counties, along with House Speaker Tim Moore (R-District 11), John Sauls (R-51) and Shelly Willingham (D-23). Pender and Brunswick county’s Republican representatives Carson Smith and Frank Iler have also sponsored the bill.

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It is identical to another bill introduced by Moore last session, which was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper. The bill may have enough Democrat support to override the governor’s veto power this time around.

Its sponsors have characterized the legislation as a way to punish “bad actors” that disrupt peaceful demonstrations. Critics, including civil rights activists from Emancipate NC, claim the bill is aimed to deter citizens from protesting at all.

Some activists dubbed the legislation “Anti-Black Lives Matter Bill,” after Moore cited violent incidents, looting and property damage in downtown Raleigh during the 2020 protests, as inspiration for the bill. 

The legislation makes changes to North Carolina General Statute 14-288.2, which defines a riot as a “public disturbance involving an assemblage of three or more persons, which by disorderly and violent conduct, or the imminent threat of disorderly and violent conduct, results in injury or damage to persons or property or creates a clear and present danger of injury or damage to persons or property.”

Under Miller’s proposed changes, willful engagement in a riot will remain a Class 1 misdemeanor. The new language penalizes brandishing a dangerous weapon or using a substance, rather than just possession as Class H felony. It carries an eight-month maximum sentence based on first-time violations. 

After consulting with Democratic lawmakers, the sponsors amended the bill to increase the property damage threshold by $1,000. H.B. 40 also strengthens penalties for willful engagement in a riot, adding if the riot causes property damage exceeding $2,500 or serious injury, it would be a Class F felony — 20-month maximum sentence.

But if someone dies during the riot, the participant incurs a Class E felony, with a maximum penalty of 31 months. 

Any person that successfully incites or urges a riot would be guilty of a Class A1 misdemeanor, an increased punishment. Incitement of a riot in which there is property damage or serious bodily harm would be a Class F — or Class E, if it results in death. Both punishments have been increased in severity from the current law. 

Miller’s legislation also stiffens penalties for assaulting emergency personnel during states of emergencies or riots to a Class H felony. If bodily injury occurs, it goes up to a Class E, while a death incurs a Class D. Members of the National Guard were also added to the “emergency personnel” definition. 

In the House on Wednesday, Sen. Natalie Murdock of District 20 said the bill “will not stop violence” but instead infringe on First Amendment rights, citing the 2020 protests after George Floyd’s murder as a reason not to support it. 

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“Millions of people protested and risked their lives in the middle of a global pandemic, because they wanted a criminal justice system that sees and protects them,” Murdock said. “Unfortunately, instead of listening to their calls and passing truly bold changes, HB 40 doubles down on the punitive system that created the scars of mass incarceration that we’re still dealing with today.”

Her sentiments were echoed by District 41’s Sen. Natasha Marcus, who said during the meeting the bill was unconstitutional and proposed an amendment to tighten the language. It was tabled. 

“If you don’t fix it, you’ll be triggering years of litigation,” Marcus said to her fellow members.

An amendment to ensure insurance companies cannot utilize loopholes to get out of small business coverage, proposed by Kandie Smith (D-5) was also tabled, along with an amendment stipulating a person participating in an insurrection of the government shall go to jail and be removed from any office they hold, proposed by Jay Chaudhuri (D-15). 

The bill advanced in the House with six Democrats joining the Republican majority; New Hanover County’s Rep. Ted Davis (R) voted in agreement, while Rep. Deb Butler (D) voted against.

In the Senate, only one Democrat voted for the bill. Local senators Bill Rabon (R) and Michael Lee (R) also were in support.

H.B. 40 will go before the governor, who has 10 days to sign or veto the bill. In a statement, Deputy Communications Director Jordan Monoghan wrote that Cooper “has worked to increase public safety, and protect Constitutional rights and he will review this legislation.”

Only one vote is needed to override a veto. The bill’s Democrat sponsor Rep. Willingham has already signaled his vote would accomplish as much.

Rep. Miller did not return a request for comment. 


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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