A civil rights organization said a bill approved earlier this week aimed at increasing protections for police will actually do the opposite if an officer is murdered — spurring a Republican senator to say the legislation may need a closer look.
American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young said the new offense creates confusion in how the law will be applied.
“In their haste to silence Georgians’ demand for police accountability, the state Legislature has produced a severely flawed bill that may substantially reduce penalties for deliberately killing a police officer,” Young said.
As part of a compromise to gain Republican support for a hate-crimes bill, lawmakers separately pushed through House Bill 838, which creates the new offense of "bias motivated intimidation" of a first responder — meaning police, firefighters and paramedics. While the hate-crimes legislation was overwhelmingly approved by a bipartisan majority of the Legislature, the police protection bill passed on a party-line vote, barely receiving approval in the House.
According to the bill, anyone found guilty of the death, serious bodily harm or destruction of more than $500 worth of property of a first responder, specifically because of his or her occupation, would face between one and five years in prison and/or a fine up to $5,000.
Currently, the punishment for murder includes death, life in prison without the possibility of parole or life in prison.
Since the targeted killing of a police officer could be considered “bias motivated intimidation” of a first responder, the ACLU says a legal argument called the “rule of lenity” requires courts to pursue the charge that is the most favorable to a defendant.
“So now, if you kill a police officer in Georgia, and it’s done under the statute of bias motivated intimidation, upon sentencing you can be sentenced between one to five years, instead of the mandatory life sentence,” said ACLU of Georgia lobbyist Christopher Bruce.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican and attorney, said he was made aware of a potential problem with the legislation late Friday.
“I think if they were charged with bias motivated (intimidation), that might be a concern,” said Stone, who voted for HB 838 and is retiring this year. “I haven’t studied it, but I think it’s something that should be looked into.”
The bill is now on Gov. Brian Kemp's desk for his approval. On Friday, he signed House Bill 426 into law, getting a hate-crimes bill on the books for the first time in 16 years. HB 426 will go into effect Wednesday.