I found myself doing something strange as I was listening to the House debate recently on HB 2, better known as the “anti-riot bill;” I was wholeheartedly and loudly agreeing with the Democrats.
This is pretty rare for me as I have been a staunch Conservative Republican since I was a kid. I’ve worked on the Right side of politics for 25 years, and my dog’s name is Dutch (Ronald Reagan’s childhood nickname). My Republican credentials are intact.
Opponents of the bill (the Democrats in question) argued that the change in the law would give police authority to arrest on the assumption that they pose a risk.
Take a second and let that sink in.
The Alabama House of Representatives was debating (and eventually passed) a bill to empower police officers to be able to arrest people solely on the officer’s personal assumptions about those they arrested.
I found myself agreeing with the Democrats as they raised alarm bells at this clear governmental overreach. Where were the Republican red flags or voices of reason? I didn’t hear them. The bill was on a three-bill special order calendar known as a cloture calendar and House leaders made it clear that no floor amendments or discussion past the two-hour window they allotted would be allowed. So the Republicans remained silent and were told by the leadership that even if they wanted to improve the bill or speak up on behalf of their constituents (their job), it wasn’t allowed.
How’s that for representation?
The sponsor, Rep. Allen Treadaway, repeatedly asserted that the bill wouldn’t infringe on First Amendment freedoms but that the bill was necessary to protect both law enforcement and property.
Unfortunately, provisions of the bill would indeed infringe on people’s First Amendment freedoms by allowing officers to arrest people on their own judgment about what might happen, rather than what is actually occurring or what they have seen occur. With all due respect to the sponsor, that sounds like a bad sci-fi movie.
Treadaway, a law enforcement veteran, argued that stronger laws are needed to combat organized protests and rioting efforts. I believe this bill steps on the Constitutional toes of law-abiding citizens, gives law enforcement too much power and hands an inordinate amount of discretion and responsibility over to individual officers. It’s an “arrest now, ask questions later” bill. Twenty-four mandatory hours later. And, worse than that, it also carries mandatory sentencing.
We’re living in precarious times. It seems like tumult is the new normal. However, the answer to that is not additional governmental overreach and an explosive expansion of police powers that clearly takes aim at our Constitutional rights to assemble and protest.
Would this bill apply if I took several of my children to stand on the sidewalk to protest and pray at the downtown Planned Parenthood? If an unsympathetic officer asked us to leave and we didn’t, or the officer made an assumption that it looked like something else might happen to us - or by us - I’m afraid the answer is yes.
Would this bill apply if five or more parents are being unruly or even just disagreeable at a school board meeting? If the parents didn’t want to leave or an unsympathetic officer thought the disagreement could possibly lead to something else, I’m afraid the answer is yes.
Would this bill apply to the Canadian Convoy or our neighbors to the North, protesters who have been unapologetically mistreated by government officials and law enforcement recently? If there were more than four of them who didn’t disperse immediately and might have looked menacing, I’m afraid the answer is yes.
HB 2 creates new penalties for assaults on police and emergency workers. Most of the other provisions of the bill are already law. We have laws on the books prohibiting blocking streets. We have laws on the books prohibiting looting and riots. We have laws on the books giving authority to officers to maintain order (that’s literally their job).
We need to support law enforcement and give them the ability to do their job as effectively as possible. However, it’s not their job to make assumptions off of the words or appearance of protestors, or on the possibility that violence might occur.
Arresting people that might break the law isn’t a slippery slope, it’s a steep cliff. Creating laws that empower officers to arrest anyone who has assembled with four other people to protest, under the guise of the possibility of those people destroying property, is an extreme overreaction and unacceptable governmental overreach.
Targeting citizens for their assembly or peaceful protest is wrong. Arresting people upon assumptions is wrong and un-American. Our Constitutional rights don’t rely on the sympathies or biases of law enforcement officers, and they shouldn’t.
I’m afraid the House got this one wrong.
Let’s ask our Senators to defend our rights and reject this dangerous bill.
Stephanie Holden Smith is an experienced policy analyst, political commentator, and public speaker. Smith has worked and volunteered in Governmental Affairs in Alabama since 1997, including lobbying for a Fortune 500 company and serving as Deputy Director of Finance for the State of Alabama. She is currently the principal of Thatcher Coalition LLC. To contact Stephanie, please go to http://thatchercoalition.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information Commentary@1819News.com.