We are now two weeks into the 2017 Session, and the pace has picked up dramatically. As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and ushered in the Trump Administration, the Senate considered several bills introduced by Republican Senator Richard Stuart that increase penalties for civil disobedience. These bills are part of a troubling trend by Republican legislators in several states to quash civil disobedience and curb First Amendment rights in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Trump Presidency protests, and the recent Women’s March on Washington. In addition to Virginia, similar bills have been introduced in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington.
Three of the bills considered in the Virginia Senate were killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on MLK Day: SB 1056 would have increased from a Class 3 to a Class 1 misdemeanor for crossing or remaining within police lines or barricades without proper authorization; SB 1057 would have doubled the maximum jail time to 10 years in prison for participating in civil disobedience that causes harm to a person or property; and SB 1058 proposed felony charges against protesters who block any road in Virginia, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
The final bill reported out of the Committee and was debated on the Senate floor Monday. SB 1055 increases penalties for failure to leave the place of any riot or unlawful assembly after having been lawfully warned to disperse. Rather than a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500, such an offense would be a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail, up to a $2500 fine, or both. Given how broadly unlawful assembly is defined, this bill went too far.
Considering that many of the rights we enjoy today were the result of civil disobedience and unlawful assembly, I strongly opposed SB 1055, and spoke out against it on the Senate floor. As noted by the ACLU in its opposition to the bill, it is often hard to hear police orders to disperse from a protest because of the noise. This bill would subject bystanders to a protest to jail time, particularly those recording the protest who are ordered to leave. Fortunately, the bill was defeated on a 14-26 vote.
Senate Republicans also defeated bills in committee last week to increase Virginia's minimum wage (SB 785 and SB 979), remove unconstitutional TRAP regulations that require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as hospitals (SB 877), and to authorize DMV to issue driver’s privilege cards to drivers who can prove that they pay Virginia income tax, have valid car insurance, and meet statewide driving and road safety standards (SB 1345).
Some good news came out of the House of Delegates last week when a subcommittee killed HB 1612, the so called Physical Privacy Act, which was nearly identical to the North Carolina "bathroom bill" that cost that state an estimated $600 million in business and led to the defeat of Republican Governor Pat McCrory. I strongly opposed this bill, and am glad to see it fail.
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