Bill to raise NC riot penalties clears Senate committee

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Kings Mountain, gavels in a session as North Carolina legislators convene on the House floor to move forward a coronavirus relief package in Raleigh, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — An N.C. Senate committee advanced a measure that would impose tougher penalties on those who engage in violent protests.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain), the bill’s sponsor, said his plan will better protect businesses and police from violence and property damage similar to what he saw occur in Raleigh last year during demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We need to give our law enforcement the tools that they need so that when someone goes out and destroys property and engages in violence that they can be held accountable,” Moore said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Though Moore’s idea received support from several Democrats in the House earlier this year, others worry the bill will have an effect by making people less willing to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

Mecklenburg County Sens. Mujtaba Mohammed and Natasha Marcus expressed concerns over key parts of House Bill 805, including a provision that allows property owners to sue violators for three times the amount of actual damages they incurred, as well as court costs and attorney fees.

“To me, that reads like an incentive to sue, to get a bonus, and it adds to the problems of this bill,” Marcus said.

Mohammed was concerned with a portion that he said makes it easier for police to lock up protesters who did not injure emergency personnel, such as firefighters, health care workers or police officers. The bill does not require a person to commit an “assault causing physical injury” in order to be charged with a felony.

“My concern is we’re trampling on folks’ First Amendment rights,” Mohammed said.

In response, Moore replied: “I hope it’s a chilling effect on somebody thinking they can go out and destroy somebody’s else’s property. I hope someone actually does think, ‘Hmm, I may not only go to jail for this but if I go destroy someone’s property … I’m not only going to be on the hook for the damage I did but for a punitive side.'”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina opposes the measure, calling it an “anti-Black Lives Matter piece of legislation.”