PHOENIX - Arizona lawmakers are considering boosting penalties for people arrested at protests, drawing fierce opposition from civil rights groups worried officers will target Black Lives Matter demonstrators or others with messages police find distasteful.
A measure approved on Feb. 15 by a state House committee is among several bills advancing in the Republican-controlled Legislature in the wake of demonstrations against police brutality last year.
Critics worry the measures would be selectively enforced by overzealous police and prosecutors and would discourage people from exercising their First Amendment right to protest.
They point to the case of 15 people who were arrested by Phoenix police at an October protest and charged by Maricopa County prosecutors with gang crimes, which carry severe prison penalties. The charges were dismissed under pressure last week.
The legislation, HB2309, puts "power in the hands of police and prosecutors to target speech they find objectionable," said Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist representing the American Civil Liberties Union.
The bill would create a new crime called "violent or disorderly assembly," which would trigger much stiffer criminal penalties for people working together to cause injury or property damage during a protest that police have declared to be an unlawful assembly.
Criminal damage, blocking roadways, aiming a laser pointer at an officer, criminal damage, public nuisance and other crimes would become felonies. Assaulting a police officer would automatically be considered aggravated assault, with a six-month minimum jail term without the ability for a judge to shorten it.
The bill also would prohibit anyone arrested at such a demonstration from receiving public benefits or working for government agencies, but the sponsor said he’ll remove that provision.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, a former police officer, argued the measure actually supports free speech by discouraging those with violent aims from disrupting peaceful protests.
"I don’t see how innocent people are going to be caught up in this," Kavanagh said.
Lawmakers also advanced HB2567, which would require that police disciplinary boards be dominated by officers from the same agency as the officer facing discipline. The measure takes aim at citizen review boards that give civilian oversight of police discipline.
Another measure advanced that would require police agencies to notify people, before they file a complaint about an officer, that it’s illegal to submit a false report.
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