Alabama House approves bill changing riot definition; critics say it gives police too much power
The Alabama House of Representatives Tuesday approved a bill that would change the definition of rioting amid concerns about law enforcement safety and criticism that it could restrict lawful protest.
HB 2, sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Birmingham, passed on a 75 to 27 vote after two hours of debate. It next goes to the Senate.
The bill would make a new crime of assault on a first responder, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and would change the definition of rioting. The state code currently defines rioting as when a person, with five other people, "wrongfully engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly causes or creates a grave risk of public terror or alarm."
Treadaway's bill would change the definition to "the assemblage of five or more persons engaging in conduct which creates an immediate danger of damage to property or injury to persons," and would make it a crime when a person "intentionally participates in a riot" after "receiving an order to disperse by a law enforcement officer or in violation of a curfew."
It would also provide a minimum 30 days in prison for anyone convicted under the statute.
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What critics have to say about the bill
The sponsor said the bill aimed to protect law enforcement and peaceful protestors, and alleged that outsiders created violence during the Black Lives Matter protests in Birmingham in 2020. Treadaway said police officers had "a target on their backs" and that he was trying to protect them.
"This bill does nothing to suppress one's First Amendment rights," Treadaway said. "This bill only kicks in after there's a curfew in place, an order to disperse, and you're not compliant."
But critics said the bill would give police broad power to determine what constitutes a riot and act as a restriction on peaceful protest. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the law as written gave police officers the right to decide what constituted danger, even if it involved peaceful protesters in a public square.
"It has a chilling effect on anybody who wants to go protest, who's likely to end up arrested because you want to make a choice in that moment on free speech," he said.
Treadaway said police officers needed "a lot of discretion" in making those calls.
Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Gallion, a former police officer, said the law as written would allow peaceful protestors to be arrested as rioters for the actions of an individual they might not know.
"The problem is if there are bad actors that have nothing to do with those that are doing the peaceful protests, then that's where the subjective decisions come into play," he said.
Black Democrats said Black people in Alabama already lived with discriminatory law enforcement practices.
"I've never seen you come to this podium not one time when a Black man has been brutally killed, assaulted, being spat upon, kicked, tasered, shot at, at the hands of law enforcement," said Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham.
McCampbell cited a recent story about a fight between a white teen and a Black teen at a mall in New Jersey, where police pinned and handcuffed the Black teen while not restraining the white teen.
"Laws, if applied justly and equitably, they are the best thing we can have," McCampbell said. "But if you are born Black, that equality fails to be something you expect."
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama House approves change to riot definition