Georgia bill would increase penalties for crimes committed during protests

Months after Atlanta was the site of weeks of unrest in response to police brutality across the country, a Republican senator and former police officer has filed legislation that would increase penalties for people who commit crimes during a protest.

Senate Bill 171 would increase the penalties for crimes such as blocking a highway, assaulting someone or damaging property when gathered in groups of two or more.

The bill’s sponsor, Cataula Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson, said the bill was inspired by both protests last year that got out of control in Atlanta and last month’s attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

“If you go back and look at the unrest that’s taken place starting this past summer, moving all the way up to what we witnessed this past January, you see that these unregulated, disorganized, chaotic events lead to injury, death and massive amounts of property damage,” Robertson said.

Some Democrats who oppose the bill as introduced said it was clear the measure was a reaction to the protests held in Atlanta and across the country last summer in response to the deaths of Black men and women who were killed by police. Protests in Atlanta lasted for weeks, with some attendees damaging property throughout the downtown area — including at the state Capitol — and others throwing things at police.

“There are significant state and federal constitutional issues with the bill in terms of its impact on freedom of assembly and speech,” said Senate Special Judiciary Chairwoman Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat.

The bill, filed last week, would make blocking a highway during an “unlawful assembly” a felony, carrying a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. Any groups of seven or more who damage property or are violent against another person also would be charged with a felony.

Also, under the bill, anyone who commits a crime while gathered in a group could be charged with racketeering.

Those who are convicted of offenses related to “unlawful assembly,” defined as “the assembly of two or more persons for the purpose of committing an unlawful act,” would be banned from working for the state or any municipality.

Local government agencies that instructed their law enforcement officers not to interact with protesters could be sued by anyone who was injured or whose property was damaged. And any Georgia municipality that cut its law enforcement funding by more than 30% could have state funding withheld.

Robertson said he was glad some of the Senate Republican leadership agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan of Carrollton and Senate Public Safety Chairman John Albers of Roswell.

“If we want to protect citizens and if we want to protect free speech and if we want to protect the men and women that go out there and protect the people who want to promote free speech, then I think this is a perfect piece of legislation to do that with,” Robertson said.