Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is striking down a bill from Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st District, that would’ve stiffened penalties against anyone that incites a violent riot against police or other first responders, amidst fears that the legislation could be used to target organizers of political protests.
The Democrat announced that he’d be vetoing H.B. 1791 on April 28. The legislation would’ve made it a “Class 3” felony for anyone that directs a riot that results in acts of violence against law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, or even members of the state’s National Guard. That charges would have carried a sentence of anywhere from five to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
McAuliffe offered an amendment to the bill that would’ve created the same penalty for anyone inciting a violent riot against someone because of their “race, religious convictions, color, sexual orientation, or national origin.” But state lawmakers declined to consider that change, ruling it wasn’t relevant to the intent of the original bill, so the governor broke out his veto pen.
“Conspiring to riot against a law enforcement officer is a serious crime, as is inciting a riot against a person because of his race, religious convictions, color, sexual orientation, or national origin,” McAuliffe wrote in a statement. “House Bill 1791 in its original form fails to strike this needed balance.”
But Lingamfelter called the governor’s amendment “pretty political,” and felt it distracted from his original reason for writing the bill. He believed the bill was necessary after he observed “the real negativity that’s cropped up against law enforcement,” with the shooting of police officers during a peaceful protest in Dallas standing as his prime example.
That’s why he was hoping to “let it be known to people out there who are plotting to do violence to first responders, including the National Guard, that if you do this in Virginia, we’re going to hold you to a tougher standard.”
“They’re putting their lives literally on the line to protect the public, and anyone who would murder them, I don’t have enough vocabulary to describe how disgusting this is to me,” Lingamfelter said.
But Bill Farrar, director of public policy and communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, sees Lingamfelter’s legislation as an attempt to “chill” efforts to lead peaceful protests. He worries that if someone organized a demonstration, and one of the people involved attacked a first responder, an overzealous prosecutor could’ve used Lingamfelter’s proposed provisions to charge the protest organizer with a serious crime.
“How much less likely would you be to talk about organizing a peaceful protest on social media or any other realm if you’re afraid it could result in 20 years in prison?” Farrar said. “It’s an outrageous penalty for encouraging people to express themselves in a peaceful way.”
Lingamfelter challenges that characterization of his bill, saying he feels “prosecutorial discretion is always at work” when it comes time to apply any law.
“I don’t believe that prosecutors and police are out to ensnare anybody, and they could apply common sense in bringing charges against people when there’s sufficient evidence that they aim to do violence to someone,” Lingamfelter said.
Yet Farrar counters that state law already provides enhanced penalties for crimes against first responders, and Lingamfelter’s bill would’ve simply dissuaded anyone from taking a chance with a peaceful protest.
Farrar also fears the law could’ve proved to be an especially powerful tool for any prosecutor who might not agree with the message of the spate of protests that have cropped up in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. He believes legislators across the country have increasingly pushed measures designed to limit peaceful protests, and he sees Lingamfelter’s bill as part of a broader trend to “chill those rights to assemble” — the ACLU opposed four other protest-related bills in Virginia alone, and identified 14 other states where lawmakers introduced similar legislation.
“We’re seeing more free speech these days and certain people don’t like the messages being conveyed right now,” Farrar said.