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Utah Legislators Show Support For Increased Penalties For Protesters

A photo of protestors facing riot police.
KUER File Photo
After this year’s protests in Salt Lake City and around the country, Utah lawmakers push forward bills to increase penalties for demonstrators.

The Utah Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee approved two bills Tuesday that would change the state’s policies around riots and protests.

One of the bills would make it a third-degree felony to block roads while protesting, which could mean up to five years in prison. It’s currently punishable by fines up to $750.

Will Carlson, senior policy advisor and a prosecutor for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, asked the committee not to increase the penalty in part because protesting in the streets is an American tradition.

“Selma, Alabama, included blocking traffic as a part of the protest,” Carlson said. “This will criminalize that activity as long as a prosecutor can show beyond a reasonable doubt that people were engaged in tumultuous activity.”

The bill would also protect drivers if their car is stuck in a riot and they injure or kill someone while trying to get out.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, said that’s especially important if they’re driving somewhere in an emergency.

“What happens if that person, who through no fault of their own, finds themselves in a situation that they don’t understand and are not prepared to handle?” Thatcher said. “The idea of being charged criminally is concerning.”

Carlson spoke out against that proposal, saying it reminded him of what happened during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a neo-Nazi rammed protesters with his car, injuring 35 people and killing Heather Heyer.

“A driver, claiming he was trying to avoid being injured, drove into a crowd of protesters who were marching in the streets,” he said. “[This bill would] create an affirmative defense for other individuals who may disagree with the protests.”

The committee also considered a bill that would keep people in jail longer after being arrested for rioting.

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon said he has been working with the Portland City Police Department and he witnessed what he called “the grand finale of protests” there in September. He said Portland protesters would be arrested for rioting and then released immediately.

“They would go to jail and come right back out again,” Arbon said. “The penalties weren’t enough to help keep the situation down and people from destroying property and injuring others.”

Reporting from the Associated Press found in July that most of the Portland protesters who were arrested were released and some had been arrested multiple times for the same offense. But their reporting did not say if those people would return to protesting the same night of their arrest.

But Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, noted Salt Lake City and Utah aren’t Portland.

“How many people do we actually have doing this in Utah, and is it really a problem?” Romero asked. “I hear Portland referenced a lot, so I’m curious as to how much of an issue this is facing our cities.”

Arbon said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he noticed similar issues at protests in Salt Lake earlier this year.

“I was literally on the front lines,” he said. “We witnessed a lot of spray paint and a lot of damage to [Salt Lake City]. When I flew up to Portland, we saw the same thing. It’s not the grander scale that Portland is, but it’s definitely a smaller version and it’s happening here.”

Both bills will be considered during the 2021 general session of the Legislature.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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