Arizona lawmakers are considering a bill, HB 2309, that would heighten the penalties for a number of charges associated with protests, and create a new charge for behavior deemed “violent or disorderly assembly.”
Under the bill, “violent or disorderly assembly” is defined as someone who acts “with seven or more other persons…with the intent to engage in conduct constituting a riot or an unlawful assembly, causes damage to property or injury to another person.”
Arizona already has laws for disruptive behavior such as aiming a laser pointer at an officer, obstructing a highway, using fireworks, abusing venerated objects, and committing vandalism. Currently, all of these are considered misdemeanors. Under the proposed law, these charges would now be considered a class six felony, punishable with up to two years in prison, if the individual committed them in the context of a “violent or disorderly assembly.” The heightened penalty would not apply if the individual were charged in a different context.
Under the bill’s current language, protesters would also have to be kept in official custody for 12 hours after the initial arrest.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has criticized the law as overly broad, and warned that its language would endanger nonviolent forms of civil disobedience.
“If passed, people making their voices heard with tactics from the Civil Rights era—like sit-ins, boycotts, and the March to Selma—could be sent to prison,” the ACLU stated on their site. The civil rights group is encouraging Arizona residents to email their representatives and urge them to vote against the bill.
Though a similar bill targeting protesters in Arizona died last week, HB 2309 has double the number of sponsors as the previous legislation. On February 15th, the bill passed through the Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee and will now move on for a vote in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The Arizona law is part of a larger wave of bills targeting protest activity, a pattern that has concerned First Amendment and civil rights groups. In the first month of 2021, the United States saw 18 new bills introduced in 12 state legislatures that either expanded the definition of rioting, heightened penalties for existing offenses, or created new crimes associated with assembly.