By Mitch Kokai
The N.C. House voted 63-41 Tuesday on a final version of a bill increasing penalties for rioting. The bill now heads to the governor.
“We saw firsthand what happens when folks join in what was otherwise a lawful protest and engage in destruction of property, assaults, and injury to people,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the lead sponsor of House Bill 805. “That’s not protesting at that point. That’s rioting. That’s looting.”
Moore formulated his bill after watching violent protests in downtown Raleigh last year. “We saw where buildings were burned, just massive property damage,” he said. “Some folks lost their businesses as a result of this.”
The bill targets violent acts, not peaceful protests, Moore explained. “It strikes a balance between protecting the right of folks to go out and protest — protecting that most valuable right in the First Amendment — and at the same time protecting order.”
Twenty-three House Democrats supported the initial version of the bill when it cleared the chamber with an 88-25 vote in May. Just two Democrats joined Republicans to support the final version, which incorporated Senate revisions.
“It was a riot, and there was some damage, and it was awful,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham. “But the laws on our books already address what happened.”
“The truth is: This isn’t going to deter anyone,” Morey added. “But it may have the harm of stifling free speech and free assembly.”
Rep. Charles Miller, R-Brunswick, worked as a law enforcement officer in Wilmington during similar violent protests in 2020. “I dodged two bricks myself,” Miller said. “I had fireworks thrown at me, frozen water bottles — you name it, they threw it at us. I support this bill.”
Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, asked Moore to respond to the charge that H.B. 805 is an “anti-Black Lives Matter bill.”
“It is an anti-rioting bill,” Moore said. “I support the right of Black Lives Matter and any other organization to protest.”
“I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you and everyone else to defend the First Amendment right of anybody to speak,” Moore added. “But what we have to stand together … with no question at all is for the rule of law, and that when someone tries to go out under the guise of a protest and engages in assaulting people, destroying property, trying to burn down buildings, stealing — that’s not protest. That’s not free speech. That is criminal activity.”
The speaker’s answer didn’t persuade Quick. “This, in my opinion, is a political football that looks to advance a narrative.”
Under H.B. 805, a person “brandishing” a dangerous weapon or using a dangerous substance during the course of a riot can be charged with a felony. The felony charge is more severe if the rioter causes $1,500 of property damage or serious bodily injury. A rioter who causes a death faces an even stricter penalty. Only a judge would be able to grant pretrial release for people charged under the proposed law.
Once the bill reaches Cooper’s desk, he will have up to 10 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.