Ohio House GOP to push forward on sweeping riot bill amid deep civil liberties concerns

COLUMBUS, Ohio — High-profile legislation that would significantly toughen Ohio’s riot laws is set to move forward Wednesday amid fierce criticism from civil liberties advocates that it would impose disturbing limits on freedom of movement. expression.

House Bill 109, set to be defeated by the House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday morning by majority Republicans, comes after the Ohio Statehouse and other businesses were damaged during the Black Lives protests Matter last year.

Supporters say the bill, called the Ohio Law and Order Act, is meant to protect law enforcement and business owners and only targets violent rioters, not peaceful protesters.

But opponents describe the legislation as a dangerous and excessive drag on Ohio’s First Amendment rights. “I can say, without exaggeration, that HB 109 is by far the most concerning free speech bill I can remember due to its extremely broad impact, broad and vague language and stiff penalties. “Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said in a statement.

HB109 would create three new criminal offenses:

  • Riot vandalism, which would prohibit “recklessly causing physical damage while engaging in a riot or aggravated riot” to government property or to a monument, gravestone or burial site.
  • Riot Assault, which would ban physical damage caused by recklessness in one riot or aggravated riot, physical damage to another is caused by recklessness. The penalties would increase if the victim is a police officer.
  • Bias motivated intimidation, which would prohibit intimidation, harassment or terror of police and other first responders resulting in death or serious bodily harm, or property damage greater than $ 500.

The penalties for each of these proposed offenses would vary from a fifth degree felony (up to one year in prison and a fine of $ 2,500) to a third degree felony (which can result in up to three years of imprisonment. prison and a fine of $ 10,000), depending on the situation.

HB109 would also create the new first degree offense of “harassment in public accommodation”, under which persons who “recklessly harass or intimidate another person in a public accommodation place while the person is engaged in a riot or aggravated riot ”risks up to six months in prison and a $ 1,000 fine.

The legislation would also expand or increase the penalties for four current offenses – riot, aggravated riot, disorderly conduct and vandalism.

HB109 would prohibit individuals or organizations from providing “material support and resources” used “in whole or in part to plan, prepare, execute or assist in conduct which constitutes” a riot. It would also ban “organizing people or calling people to assemble for the purpose of violating” Ohio riot law.

And it would allow peace officers to bring civil lawsuits against anyone who knowingly makes a false complaint against them, restricts their civil rights, or commits a riot offense against them. Organizations that provide “material support or resources” for the offender could be forced to pay three times the amount of damages suffered.

State Representative Cindy Abrams, a Cincinnati Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said that before the House Civil Justice Committee votes to send the bill to the House, it will add an amendment. clarifying that organizations must knowingly plan a riot, as opposed to a peaceful protest, to violate the bill.

Abrams, a former policewoman from Cincinnati, said in an interview that she strongly supports the right to free speech and that the bill is only intended to arrest those who engage in violence and destruction. . In testimony before the committee last March, Abrams noted that vandals caused $ 158,000 in damage to the Ohio Statehouse amid protests following the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin.

“We’re not talking about peaceful protesters here,” Abrams said. “We are talking about vandalism, looting and (and) violence. None of these is freedom of speech.

Besides Abrams, HB109 has 15 other co-sponsors, all Republicans. Groups such as the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, the Ohio Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ohio Prosecutors Association have also expressed support for the bill.

But more than 20 opponents have testified against the bill in committee, including Amanda Hays, justice coordinator at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus.

Hays said HB109 – along with another controversial bill, House Bill 22 – defines proposed crimes “so broadly that peaceful and constitutional protesters can be arrested and charged with crimes at the will of law enforcement. “. She suggested that if HB109 passed, “a seven-year-old could be hit with high fines and a felony for creating sidewalk chalk art during a peaceful protest.”

Hays added: “Honestly these bills have made me wonder if I live in the ‘land of the free’ or in a dictatorship where the police have the power to take extreme action against protesters of their choice. . … The freedom to protest makes America America.

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