N.C. legislators aim to more clearly define rioting — and make people pay harsher penalties for it

N.C. legislators aim to more clearly define rioting — and make people pay harsher penalties for it

The first night of the Charlotte protests following the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Rioting in North Carolina could lead to stiffer penalties and longer sentences, if bills making their way through the legislature become law.

Why it matters: Here is one of the unintended outcomes of last summer’s George Floyd demonstrations: A wave of bills pouring through state governments aims to crack down on the more destructive and violent protests.

What’s happening: State House speaker Tim Moore and influential state senator Danny Britt, both Republicans, each rolled out legislation that would make rioting or inciting a riot a felony in most cases, punishable by a minimum sentence of 4 to 25 months.

  • Britt told me Monday he introduced it in part because of seeing destruction to property in Raleigh last summer, including at a Kimbrell’s furniture store that had been there for about a century.
  • “That had nothing at all to do with George Floyd’s death or criminal justice policies,” Britt said. “And last I heard, Kimbrell’s had very little to do with what we do at the General Assembly.”

The other side: “I think this has an effect of essentially chilling free speech,” Mecklenburg County Rep. Brandon Lofton said last week in the Observer. Lofton took his teenage sons to Floyd protests last year.

The big picture: The Senate bill is about more than anti-riot measures. It includes some components that might appeal to activists, including one that would create a statewide database of officers who’ve been disciplined or decertified.

  • It also tweaks the language to prevent people who are at the protests but don’t commit the act of violence from being arrested, saying, “Mere presence alone without an overt act is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.”

Late add to bill: In response to the Andrew Brown case in Elizabeth City, the Senate judiciary committee added an amendment to the bill Monday that would allow families to see body cam footage sooner.

  • Under the amendment, which passed unanimously, family of a person killed by police would be entitled to see the unreacted footage within 5 days. If a law enforcement agency decides it doesn’t want to release it, it would have to ask a judge for permission to redact.

Britt has received bipartisan support for recent reform efforts. He led the 2019 passing of the First Step Act, which allowed judges to give shorter sentences than mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug offenses; and the Second Chance Act, which automatically expunged dismissed charges to allow people an clearer path to re-entry into the workforce.

By including body cameras and databases for disciplined cops in this bill alongside the anti-rioting penalties, the new bill has gained support from Democrats such as Mecklenburg’s Mujtaba Mohammed.

  • “It’s not as if we’re looking only to beef up certain criminal penalties without any consideration for some of the very real problems in the criminal justice system,” Pat Ryan, Berger’s spokesperson, told me in an email. “It’s quite the opposite.”

    Where else it’s happening: The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, which tracks legislation that cracks down on protests, says 69 bills are currently pending in legislature. Florida passed its anti-riot law last month in spite of protesters’ efforts to stop it.

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