Lawmakers in North Carolina have approved a bill imposing more severe punishments for rioters in response to destructive demonstrations that took place in 2020 following the death of George Floyd. The bill, House Bill 40, now awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who vetoed a similar bill approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in 2021. Supporters of the bill argue that it aims to protect the First Amendment rights of peaceful protestors while keeping them, law enforcement, and property owners safe from violence during any riot. However, social justice and civil rights advocates have pushed back on the measures, claiming they target Black Lives Matter demonstrators and marginalized groups.

Opponents of the bill argue that the language is too broad and laws addressing rioting are already in place. Democratic Sen. Natalie Murdock has criticized the bill, stating that it will only “stifle free speech, criminalize protest and erode our First Amendment freedoms.” Supporters of the bill argue that it only targets “violent actors” causing mayhem, and not those peacefully demonstrating.

The bill would increase punishments already in place for the crimes of those willfully participating in a riot or inciting one to cover more severe circumstances like brandishing a weapon or causing serious bodily injury. New crimes would be created for a rioter who caused a death or someone who incites rioting that contributes to a death. The bill would also allow property owners who experience damage during protests to seek compensation against a perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damages.

Defendants accused of rioting or looting would have to wait for 24 hours before their bond and pretrial release rules are set, which supporters argue could lead to a “cooling-off period” for those accused. Nine states have passed similar laws since the nationwide riots in 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, and North Carolina is one of several currently considering new penalties for rioters.

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