ATLANTA — Legislation elevating the crime of rioting from a misdemeanor to a felony cleared the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives Wednesday.
House Bill 505 passed 98-73 along party lines and now moves to the state Senate.
The bill’s supporters cited violent protests last month around Atlanta’s proposed Police Training Center — derided by critics as “Cop City” — in pushing for the measure’s passage. A young protester was shot and killed and a state trooper was shot and seriously wounded during a cleanup operation law enforcement officers conducted to break up a tent encampment at the site.
“We should protect peaceful protesters,” said Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica, chairman of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “[But] the No.-1 priority for government should be to protect people and property.”
Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, the bill’s chief sponsor, said allowing out-of-state protesters to come into Georgia to perpetrate street violence is bad for business.
“With downtown [Atlanta] dependent on conventions and tourism, we must protect that industry from brand damage,” said Cheokas, who chairs the House Small Business Development Committee.
But House Democrats argued the broad way the bill defines “riot” could subject peaceful protesters caught up in a violent demonstration as bystanders to being charged with a felony.
“Protest is essential to our democracy and a fundamental First Amendment right,” said Rep. Omari Crawford, D-Decatur.
Crawford said police also could use the legislation to arrest teenagers scuffling in a school bus or tailgating outside a football game.
But House Majority Whip James Burchett, R-Waycross, said the bill is not meant to apply to people in an “affray.” Instead, the definition in the measure requires two or more people to share a “common intent” to damage property or commit violence before they can be charged.
“An affray is an affray, a fight,” Burchett said. “We’re not burning police cars or tearing up local businesses.”
After the bill passed, the House approved a related measure 100-69 — also along party lines — to create the offense of arson of a law enforcement vehicle.
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