INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's Republican lawmakers are attempting to deter protests that have elevated since George Floyd's death with a series of bills that would increase penalties for rioting, vandalizing monuments, blocking emergency vehicles and violating curfews.
The proposals come in response to May 2020 protests against racial injustice and police brutality spurred by Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody. In Indianapolis, it resulted in several nights of sometimes violent protests, as well as clashes between demonstrators and police.
One Senate bill introduced by Republican Sen. Eric Koch could allow the state to withhold funding to cities that fail to protect public monuments and memorials from vandalism. State police would also be required to assist local governments when investigating people who desecrate those monuments and memorials.
“This summer, we all watched with disdain and grief the attacks that were made around the country on historic monuments, memorials and statues by rioters and angry mobs,” Koch said Tuesday during committee testimony. “In many cases, leaders of those communities instructed law enforcement to stand down, and in essence let it happen. This bill is brought to address that situation going forward."
Another piece of legislation seeks to allow Indiana’s attorney general to prosecute criminal offenses that occur during an unlawful assembly. Under the measure, rioting would be raised from a Class A misdemeanor to a level six felony, which carries a prison sentence of up to 2.5 years and a fine of up to $50,000 if there's resulting property damage or serious bodily injury.
The felony further increases to a level five — carrying one to six years in prison — if it results in catastrophic injury, death or damage of at least $50,000.
Enabling rioting would additionally become a Class B misdemeanor. The charge applies to anyone present while members of an unlawful assembly are committing a felony, knows that the action is criminal and fails to leave the area or report the act to police. Currently, it carries no penalty.
“I wanted to find a way that we could protect the voices of those people who protest — according to the rules — so we can hear them, and so our constitutional rights are protected,” said Republican Sen. Michael Young, who authored the bill. “It's also to punish those people who destroyed property ... and not only participated in the action, but also the people who aided and abetted those actions, who egged it on."
Senate Bill 199, another authored by Young, sparked contention in committee hearings Tuesday over a provision extending immunity to business owners who use firearms to protect their storefronts. By allowing store owners to point both loaded or unloaded firearms in acts of self-defense, Young argued there would be less looting and “destruction” caused by rioters.
“These owners really were helpless in what they could do to try to protect their business, the property, themselves and maybe even their customers," Young said, citing damages to downtown Indianapolis businesses last May. "The bill is just an attempt help out people who are faced with that situation.”
In the House, Republican Rep. Wendy McNamara filed a similar, all-encompassing measure to her Senate colleagues. Her bill would remove immunity from government or government employees who are “gross(ly) negligent” in their failure to enforce the law during an unlawful assembly.
It also broadens the definition of an unlawful assembly to three or more people who are obstructing government activities or engaging in “tumultuous conduct.”
Under McNamara's bill, rioting would additionally be elevated to a level six felony if a person covers their face to conceal their identity, and conviction for the crime would constitute at least 30 days in prison and restitution to any victims. The felony increases to a level five if at least seven people in an unlawful assembly damage at least $750 of property or injure another person.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.