Georgia Proposal Returns to Crack Down on Crimes Committed at Protests

By Maya T. Prabhu | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | March 18, 2021

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A Georgia senator has brought back his effort to increase penalties for people who commit crimes during a protest.

In a Senate panel on Thursday, Republican state Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula, who is a former police officer, amended House Bill 289 to mirror legislation he introduced earlier this year that failed to advance.

The push comes months after Atlanta was the site of weeks of unrest in response to police brutality across the country.

The original legislation, which was filed as Senate Bill 171, would have increased the penalties for crimes such as blocking a highway, assaulting someone or damaging property if it involves groups of two or more.

Robertson’s revived version passed the Senate Public Safety Committee 5-3 on Thursday.

Robertson said the bill was inspired by both protests last year that got out of control in Atlanta and January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

“In this bill we’ve addressed the illegal conduct under unlawful assemblies. I cannot point that out enough that we are discussing only unlawful assemblies,” Robertson said. “We are in no way trying to limit or prevent any group from having a peaceful assembly or peaceful protest.”

Opponents of the bill 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.

Chris Bruce, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said the legislation “makes a mockery of the First Amendment” by imposing limits and increased penalties on how and when Georgians can gather.

“What makes House Bill 289 even more concerning is the fact that we know from history that the people who will suffer the most if this legislation were to become law are people of color, as they are most often the targets of drastic law enforcement responses,” Bruce said.

The legislation 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.

Those 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.

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 is injured or whose property is damaged. And any Georgia municipality that cut its law enforcement funding by more than 30% could have state funding withheld.

A separate bill that passed the same panel on Thursday, House Bill 286, would ban local governments from decreasing law enforcement budgets by more than 5% in one year or cumulatively across five years.