Utah Senate gives nod to bill proposing harsher penalties when ‘a protest turns into a riot’

2020 File photo of protester walking past a flipped over police car in Salt Lake City, Utah, May 30, 2020 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A bill that would increase penalties for those arrested for felony crimes committed during a riot has received a favorable vote in the Utah State Senate.

The Violence, Disorder and Looting Enforcement Protection Act, dubbed SB 138, was introduced to the 2021 Utah Legislature by Sen. David P. Hinkins, who presented the revised bill to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 17.

If passed, the bill would allow bail to be denied for people accused of rioting who are arrested for an offense committed during a riot, particularly in cases where there has been “substantial property damage or bodily injury is sustained.”

Moreover, the bill would also protect a driver from legal liability who unintentionally causes injury or death to a protester if at the time they are fleeing from a riot under a “reasonable” belief that fleeing is necessary to protect driver and any passengers from serious injury or death.

The act would also allow property owners to sue a local government entity for damages if the local government fails to protect private property, thus removing the waiver of immunity which protected local governments from being held liable.

“We’ve watched nationwide as we’ve seen protests turn into riots,” Hinkins said before the senate when he introduced the bill, adding it would increase penalties associated with rioting across the state.

Sen. David P. Hinkins R-Salt Lake City, profile photo. | Photo courtesy of Utah Legislature, St. George News

In fact, the bill would double the minimum jail sentence from 90 days to a consecutive 180 days for first offenders, and then increase it from 180-270 days consecutive for each offense thereafter. Penalties would also increase for assaulting a peace officer during a riot.

Hinkins said he has received backlash by opponents who have stated the bill is “too harsh.” To that, he said, the only people that will be affected by the bill are those who are participating in criminal behavior during a riot, those involved in the destruction of property or those who are “terrorizing neighborhoods.”

Hinkins said the bill is not meant to stop protests; it is only meant to stop the damage to public and private property, thefts, injuries and other criminal activities, such as what was seen at some protests last summer.

Casey Robertson, founder of United Citizens Alarm, an organization that launched following a riot in Provo on June 29 wherein drivers were harassed and threatened — and one was shot — said he is in support of the bill.

Robertson said his organization supports First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly. Despite how his organization has been portrayed, he said it is an entity that promotes community involvement, emergency preparedness and other civic activities.

Referring to the tenets of the bill, Robertson said “this is not a race issue; it’s a violence issue.”

Hinkins told St. George News he is a strong supporter of the right to free speech and peaceful assembly, adding that protesting is an important catalyst for change in a free society.

That does not, however, give people the right to destroy property, loot businesses, tip over police cars or to place the public at risk of serious injury or harm, he said, adding that the bill is designed to protect peaceful protesters as well.

Stock photo | Photo by Erlucho/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“The bill would only apply in situations when a protest turns into a riot,” Hinkins said.

During the 3rd Senate reading held Wednesday, Hinkins submitted a revised bill for consideration that included a section to clarify that stipulations contained in the bill would only apply to those arrested during a riot. The major point of contention during the reading was the section relating to the denial of bail.

Rep. Todd Weiler, R-District 23, said he opposed the revised bill as it pertained to bail, saying he would support the bill if the “no bail” section was removed.

Weiler, who has worked on bail reform measures in the current legislative session, said implementing bail requirements for a specific crime would only cause confusion in the midst of the recent reform measures already taking place throughout the state.

“If we start having different rules for bail for every different crime,” Weiler said, “it’s going to be a disaster.”

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-District 10, said he also would not support the bill that included the bail section saying “a riot is a messy situation,” adding it would be easy to arrest many individuals during such an incident, including those individuals who are actively rioting as well as those who are on the periphery and not rioting or committing any crime.

He said holding all those arrested in jail without bail as a matter of law “without recourse and before conviction is, I think, a bridge too far.”

Otherwise, Fillmore said, he is in support of the bill.

In summation, Hinkins said the bill has been a work in progress and explained the bail section was added primarily to address those individuals arrested for felony behavior during a riot. If passed, the bill would hold them in custody while an investigation is conducted, similar to what took place in Washington D.C., he said.

During the vote, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-District 12, who began by stating he is a strong supporter of bail reform for the accused, explained that the bill clearly states that an individual arrested during a riot is only held without bail if they are arrested for a felony and those who are accused of causing serious bodily injury or substantial property damage.

In this June 2020 file photo, people gather during a Black Lives Matter protest calling for an end to police brutality in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 10, 2020 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

“This bill is not saying that anyone arrested during a riot will not have bail,” Thatcher said.

The bill would hold them in custody until they went before a judge, he said, adding that the bail section matters for several reasons — one of which is that many who are arrested are booked and released without ever being held in jail.

If that takes place during an active riot that is still in progress, for example, he said those arrested for felony crimes would be free to return to the riot and “exacerbate the situation.”

“This bill is not about punishing protesters,” Thatcher said, adding that law enforcement has the ability to delineate between those who are peacefully protesting from those who are committing felonies.

“This bill is good for protesters. It is good for the public. It is good for law enforcement,” Thatcher said. “It is only bad for rioters.”

Th bill passed 22-7 during Wednesday’s Senate reading and will move to the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee for further consideration.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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