Politics & Government

‘Economic terrorism’ bill would toughen penalties on protesters who block roads, damage property

A protester raises his fists in the air after he and other protesters were able to block Interstate 277 in Charlotte, NC on Thursday, September 22, 2016. An N.C. House bill would create tougher penalties for protesters who block traffic.
A protester raises his fists in the air after he and other protesters were able to block Interstate 277 in Charlotte, NC on Thursday, September 22, 2016. An N.C. House bill would create tougher penalties for protesters who block traffic. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Protesters who damage property or block traffic could face tougher penalties under a criminal offense called “economic terrorism” proposed last week in North Carolina’s legislature.

The bill from several N.C. House Republicans comes months after Charlotte faced weeks of protests following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. While most of the protesters were peaceful, some broke windows, looted stores and shut down Interstate 85 and Interstate 277.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 249. He says drivers who came upon protesters on Charlotte highways last fall “feared for their lives,” and his bill would “add a little bit more of a deterrent by heightening awareness and adding a penalty.”

“The first core responsibility of government is the safety and security of its citizens, and this will assist in that effort,” Torbett added.

North Carolina is one of 17 states where Republican lawmakers have filed bills addressing recent protests, according to The New York Times. Some of the proposals are similar to Torbett’s legislation.

If Torbett’s bill passes, people who block roads while participating in a “riot or other unlawful assembly” would face Class A1 misdemeanor charges, the misdemeanor category with the longest sentences for jail, probation or community service. Illegally blocking roads for any other reason would remain a Class 2 misdemeanor.

The bill would also allow local governments to sue people convicted of riot, unlawful assembly or traffic obstruction charges for the cost of the law enforcement response.

Penalties would be even tougher for anyone convicted of the new crime of “economic terrorism,” which the bill defines as “a criminal offense that impedes or disrupts the regular course of business” by causing damage of at least $1,000 with the intent to “intimidate the civilian population” or a government entity. That would be a Class H felony, which typically carries a prison sentence of four to 25 months.

The American Civil Liberties Union is voicing concerns that the bill could infringe on First Amendment rights to protest.

“No matter your politics, all North Carolinians should be concerned any time lawmakers seek to curb our fundamental constitutional right to protest and criticize our government,” ACLU North Carolina spokesman Mike Meno said Friday. “This bill is part of a wave of legislation we’ve seen across the country designed to criminalize peaceful protest and have a chilling effect on people’s First Amendment rights”

Meno pointed to a 1939 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that the use of public streets for “purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens and discussing public questions” is “a part of the privileges, immunities, rights and liberties of citizens.”

Torbett said his bill wouldn’t affect First Amendment rights because it’s focused on people who are breaking the law.

“This has nothing to do with the right to free speech and the right to protest,” he said.

He says that he’s concerned violent protests and riots are “escalating” and that he wants to ensure “we don’t go back to a time in our history where we had innocent lives taken.”

Torbett’s bill also includes a mandate for local governments: Whenever more than 10 people block traffic, local officials must immediately “dispatch available law enforcement officers ... with directions to clear the roads.” Police sometimes wait to see if protesters will disperse on their own before using force to clear streets.

“It’s to ensure that’s there’s not a delay in the future,” Torbett said.

It’s too early to tell if Torbett’s bill has enough support among Republicans who make up a majority in the House to move forward. So far, three GOP co-sponsors have joined the proposal: Reps. Justin Burr of Albemarle, John Blust of Greensboro and John Faircloth of High Point.

In Iowa, a state Senate bill would make blocking roads a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. And in Minnesota, a state House bill would allow cities to sue protesters for the cost of the police response. That bill has prompted protests that shut down a legislative committee hearing, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter