Va. Senate rejects bill to increase penalties for remaining at unlawful protest

The state Senate on Monday rejected a bill calling for potential jail time for the crime of remaining at an unlawful assembly or a riot after being ordered to leave.

By a vote of 14-26, several Republicans joined Democrats to stop Senate Bill 1055 by Sen. Richard H. Stuart, R-Stafford.

Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, said the bill did more than increase penalties for rioting.

Because an unlawful assembly could stem from a peaceful demonstration, she said, the bill “does subject peaceful protesters to a penalty that quite frankly in many circumstances could be too harsh.”

Stuart’s bill would increase the punishment from a Class 3 misdemeanor to a more serious Class 1 misdemeanor. Such a conviction could result in up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Under current law, a Class 3 misdemeanor could not result in jail time and could result in a fine of up to $500.

Stuart and some Republicans said the bill was necessary to deter illegal behavior at an increasing number of political demonstrations.

“This is a public safety bill for us and the protesters, frankly,” Stuart said. “This has absolutely nothing to do with civil disobedience or peaceful protest. … This has to do with a riot, looting, pillaging, breaking into people’s places of business.”

McClellan rebutted that point.

Republicans also said remaining at an unlawful assembly after being told to disperse is already illegal — the bill simply enhances the punishment, they said. “What this bill does is give teeth to that law,” said Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr., R-Grayson, a former state trooper.

Carrico cited a protest in Richmond after the November election in which demonstrators blocked an interstate.

Democrats decried the bill, noting that it passed the Senate courts committee on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “You’re going to put people in jail because they didn’t move on quickly enough?” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax.

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