Arizona’s Unconstitutional SB1142
I’m always wary when any politician, regardless of party, starts proposing laws restricting the personal liberties of the public under the guise of fighting crime. For one, these efforts often backfire. Look at Prohibition. It was supposed to reduce crime by banning alcohol because a lot of crimes—loitering, larceny, domestic abuse—are committed while intoxicated. What happened instead was that it made organized crime a huge multi-million dollar industry. People still wanted to drink, and many enterprising young men had no problem working outside of the law to give the people what they wanted.
This same thing still happens today with laws against drugs and guns. People want their weed, and they want their firearms, and there’s plenty of extralegal industries willing to supply them with both. Is the solution that there should be zero laws or regulations? No, of course not. It’s not a good idea for people to be taking hard drugs like heroin or cocaine all willy-nilly, nor is it a good idea for people to be able to bring assault rifles into bars or schools.
Applying this same logic to public protests is a bit trickier. The act of protesting is of course protected as Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment. The people need to have to right to protest against their government, to speak out against those in power, to have a voice in the vast and complex engine that is America’s 240-year-old experiment as a representative democracy.
Our president’s constant attacks on the press—labelled, “the Enemy of the People,”—has been deeply troubling. A country whose leader is openly antagonistic towards a free press is not a country that that call itself a democracy. When the president gets his news only from media sources who support him, and blasts any media sources who criticize him as “fake news,” that is not the behavior of leader of a free country. That is the behavior of a despot, an emperor, a ruler of a banana republic.
With the attacks on a free press—an institution vital to the health of the American Democracy—protests by the people will only become more bold and more disruptive. This is where it gets even more complicated. Because sometimes protests will go too far, they’ll become violent, as seen with the recent Berkeley protests. Obviously, acts of violence against people and property are unacceptable and should be punished by the law. Law and order, obviously, is important to maintaining a civilized society. And a civilized society is important not just for public safety, but economic safety as well. If riots erupted in our cities every day, we would not be able to grow our economy and produce jobs.
But the law can be abused—and it often is—by the people in power. When the law is abused, it is no longer a benevolent force upholding the peace, but a malevolent force in which the upper classes disenfranchise the lower classes. One of the most frequent abuses of the law is through civil asset forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows the police to seize—and then keep or sell—any property they allege is involved in a crime. It was created as means of fighting organized crime and bringing down large scale enterprises. But it is frequently abused at the state level. A journalist and blogger at Patheos by the name of Ed Brayton, has written about this issue for many, many years. One of the things he’s uncovered is that Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, is a big fan of civil forfeiture. Oh good, so we can add that to list of reasons to hate him!
The reason I’m bringing up this topic is because of a law being proposed in Arizona right now, one that recently passed the State Senate. Arizona Senate Bill 1142 adds rioting to a list of offenses under the state racketeering law. The bill classifies a riot as follows: “A person commits riot if, with two or more other persons acting together, such person recklessly uses force or violence or threatens to use force or violence, if such threat is accompanied by immediate power of execution, with either disturbs the public peace or results in damage to the property of another person.”
This doesn’t seem too unreasonable at first glance. But since riots being included in state racketeering laws, it gives the police the authority to arrest people for “conspiracy to riot”. Here’s the thing, though, most protests that turn into riots didn’t start with the intention of rioting. Riots are rarely ever planned beforehand. So these laws can be applied to people who plan any protests, and these people can be arrested and have their belongs seized by the government. The bill alsostipulates that an “overt act is not required as proof of a riot offense.”
Essentially, if any property damage occurs as a result of just a few people taking things too far at a protest, the organizers of that protest are held liable by default. The main sponsor of the bill, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, said that it was intended to “deter violent riots” and go after groups paying protestors. Basically, he’s admitting that the main purpose of the bill is to stop the protests.
Bills like these have a chilling effect, or a situation in which your rights are threatened by the hypothetical negative results of exercising those rights. Just as President Trump’s attacks on the media have a chilling effect on Freedom of the Press, Arizona SB 1142 has a chilling effect on Freedom of Assembly, in this case, public protests. If a riot breaks out at a protest, the individuals who started the riot should be the ones who face legal consequences, not the protest organizers.
The bill’s sponsors are Senators Sonny Borrelli and Steve Smith, as well as Representative Steve Montenegro. You can find information on the sponsors of the bill, as well as the complete text of the bill, at Legiscan.com. It’s important we keep informed of what the government is doing during these times.