Senate panel advances bill to crack down on crimes committed at protests

Protesters spray fire extinguishers at police as they clash Friday evening  at the corner of Marietta Street and Centennial Olympic Park in the summer of 2020. Legislation that cleared a state Senate panel this week would impose harsher penalties on people who commit crimes during protests.

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

Credit: Jenni Girtman for the AJC

Protesters spray fire extinguishers at police as they clash Friday evening at the corner of Marietta Street and Centennial Olympic Park in the summer of 2020. Legislation that cleared a state Senate panel this week would impose harsher penalties on people who commit crimes during protests.

After a year of hearings and compromises, a Senate panel on Tuesday approved legislation that would impose harsher penalties on people who commit crimes during protests.

Senate Bill 171 would increase the penalties for crimes such as blocking a highway, assaulting someone or damaging property if it involves groups of two or more. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, with Republicans voting in support of the measure.

State Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican and former police officer, said the bill was inspired by both racial justice protests that got out of control in Atlanta in 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

“What this bill does is it protects the right of any Georgian to go out there and exercise their First Amendment rights under the Constitution of the United States of America about any issue they choose to without fear of being assaulted or hurt,” Robertson said.

“But it also reminds cities like Atlanta that citizens pay taxes,” he said. “Safety is the primary responsibility of the city, and they cannot tell their public safety, whether it’s fire and EMS, whether it’s law enforcement, to stand down when their citizens need them the most.”

Robertson said he did not want a repeat of what happened in summer 2020 in Atlanta, where there were reports that city leadership instructed police officers not to engage with protesters who began to damage property.

Opponents of the bill said it was clear the measure was a reaction to the protests held in Atlanta and across the country in 2020 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 in the downtown area — including at the state Capitol — and others throwing things at police.

The legislation would make blocking a highway during an “unlawful assembly” — defined as “the assembly of two or more persons for the purpose of committing an unlawful act” — 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.

People seeking to hold a protest, rally or other “assembly” would have to apply to their local government and receive approval before they could hold the event. Local governments would have three days to grant the permit.

Opponents of SB 171, which included the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Georgia, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and Americans For Prosperity, all said the legislation limited Georgians’ First Amendment right to freedom of assembly.

“This body just passed a bill allowing permit-less carry (of handguns) for all Georgians because it is their constitutional right,” said Kareem El-Hosseiny, a lobbyist with CAIR-GA. “This bill now requires Georgians to get permits to demonstrate, which is also a constitutionally protected right.”

The Senate approved legislation last week that would remove the licensing process for those who want to carry a concealed handgun in Georgia.

Under SB 171, anyone who commits a crime while gathered in a group could be charged with racketeering.

As originally introduced last year, Georgians convicted of offenses related to “unlawful assembly” would have been banned from working for the state or any municipality. That provision was removed from the version that passed on Tuesday.

Atlanta Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent said she didn’t think it was smart to pass the bill when no one testified in support of it and the courts have already blocked a similar measure from becoming law in Florida.

“I just want to note that with this legislation, we have the left wing against the bill, the right wing against the bill, the cities against the bill, the counties against the bill, defense lawyers against the bill and no testimony in favor of it,” she said before the vote.

SB 171 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, which will determine whether it gets a vote by the full Senate.

About the Author