PHOENIX — Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened.
SB 1142 expands the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. And it redefines what constitutes rioting to include actions which result in damage to the property of others.
But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, acknowledged that sometimes what’s planned as a peaceful demonstration can go south.
“When people want to express themselves as a group during a time of turmoil, during a time of controversy, during a time of high emotions, that’s exactly when people gather as a community,” he said. “Sometimes they yell, sometimes they scream, sometimes they do go too far.”
Quezada said, though, that everything that constitutes rioting already is a crime, ranging from assault to criminal damage, and those responsible can be individually prosecuted. He said the purpose of this bill appears to be designed to chill the First Amendment rights of people to decide to demonstrate in the first place for fear something could wrong.
But Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that chilling effect is aimed at a very specific group of protesters.
“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” he said.
“A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists,” Kavanagh continued. “But this stuff is all planned.”
There’s something else: By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.”
“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?” Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?”
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the new criminal laws are necessary.
“I have been heartsick with what’s been going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,” she said.
She agreed with Quezada that there already are laws that cover overt acts. But Allen said they don’t work.
“If they get thrown in jail, somebody pays to get them out,” she said. “There has to be something to deter them from that.”
Farley, however, said the legislation does far more than simply going after those who might incite people to riot, something which actually already is a crime. And he warned Republicans that such a broad law could end up being used against some of their allies.
For example, he said, a “tea party” group wanting to protest a property tax hike might get permits, publicize the event and have a peaceful demonstration.
“And one person, possibly from the other side, starts breaking the windows of a car,” Farley said.
“And all of a sudden the organizers of that march, the local tea party, are going to be under indictment from the county attorney in the county that raised those property taxes,” he said. “That will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done.”
Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said the whole legislation is based on a false premise of how disturbances happen.
“This idea that people are being paid to come out and do that?” she said. “I’m sorry, but I think that is fake news.”
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, had her own concerns.
“I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard,” she said.
The 17-13 party-line vote sends the bill to the House.