The North Carolina legislature gave final approval on Thursday to more severe punishments for rioters for the second time in three years — a response to 2020 demonstrations about racial injustice that while largely peaceful at times turned violent.
The measure now moves to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who in 2021 successfully blocked a similar bill approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly by using his veto stamp.
But Republicans made enough seat gains in November so they now potentially only need one House Democrat to join them to override a Cooper veto if the GOP majorities remain united. And the measure received voting support in the House last month from six Democrats, including a chief sponsor of the bill.
Legislative action was completed Thursday in the Senate, where Republicans already hold a veto-proof majority, on a vote of 27-16.
House Speaker Tim Moore has championed the measure this year and in 2021, saying current laws didn’t deter rioting and looting in downtown Raleigh in June 2020, amid otherwise peaceful protests following the murder of North Carolina native George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
The bill “protects First Amendment rights of those who want to protest safely — who want to be able to express their opinions — while keeping them safe and while also keeping law enforcement safe, property owners safe and others safe,” Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, said on the Senate floor Thursday. He said the bill targets “violent actors” who are separate from demonstrators and causing mayhem.
Social justice and civil rights advocates have pushed back on the measures at every turn, saying they target Black Lives Matter demonstrators and marginalized groups by trying to frighten them from taking to the streets peacefully with the threat of imprisonment. Others say the incitement language is too broad and that laws already are on the books to address rioting.
The bill “doubles down on the punitive system that created the scars of mass incarceration that we’re still dealing with today,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham County Democrat, adding that it will “only serve to stifle free speech, criminalize protest and erode our First Amendment freedoms.”
Cooper’s office didn’t immediately respond Thursday to an email seeking comment on the bill. In his message vetoing the 2021 bill, Cooper said legislation was “unnecessary and is intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”
The new bill would increase punishments already in place for crimes of willfully participating in a riot or inciting one to cover more severe circumstances — possibly resulting in sentences that last a few more years. They would include if a rioter brandishes a weapon or causes serious bodily injury. Assaults on emergency personnel also would result in higher felony penalties.
And new crimes would be created for a rioter who causes a death or someone who insights rioting that contributes to a death.
The bill would also let property owners whose businesses are damaged during protests seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damage. Bill supporters say this helps small businesses whose property insurance doesn’t always cover public disturbances.
And defendants accused of rioting or looting could lead to defendants having to wait for 24 hours before their bond and pretrial release rules are set, which bill supporters can lead to a cooling-off period for the accused.
Moore has said the laws would apply to any protesters who are violent, mentioning those like the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021.
Among the Democratic amendments blocked from debate Thursday through GOP parliamentary maneuvering was one that would have raised criminal penalties for rebellion and insurrection and removed public officials permanently from their position if convicted.
Nine states have passed similar protest laws since June 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law. North Carolina is among several states currently considering new penalties. Separately, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan police reform law in 2021 that addressed law enforcement shortcomings highlighted after Floyd’s death.
One bill opponent, Kerwin Pittman with Emancipate NC, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that Senate Democrats who backed the measure would be made politically accountable for doing so. First-term Sen. Mary Wills Bode, a Wake County Democrat, joined all Republicans present Thursday in voting for the bill.