Tougher riot penalties becoming NC law with no Cooper veto

Published 11:55 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH — Increased punishments for rioting in North Carolina will become law later this year as Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Friday he wouldn’t use his veto stamp on legislation that’s similar to a bill he successfully blocked in 2021.

The Republican-controlled legislature sent the measure to Cooper last week. He had until late Monday to sign the bill or veto the bill, which emerged from the 2020 racial injustice demonstrations that at times turned violent. Cooper said he will allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Cooper’s decision means he’ll delay, for now, a first override showdown this year with a legislature that has become more Republican since his veto two years ago. It also displeased social justice advocates who had urged him to veto this year’s bill, saying it would restrict the right to protest and free speech.

In a news release, Cooper acknowledged changes “were made to modify this legislation’s effect” after his earlier veto but still said he had concerns.

“Property damage and violence are already illegal and my continuing concerns about the erosion of the First Amendment and the disparate impacts on communities of color will prevent me from signing this legislation,” he said.

Two years ago, there were enough Democrats in the House and Senate to uphold the riot bill veto on their own. But now the GOP has a veto-proof majority in the Senate and is just one seat short of a similar advantage in the House.

Seven Democrats — including six in the House — voted for this year’s measure that went to his desk. And one of the six House Democrats was a chief sponsor of the measure. These raised the prospects for a successful override.

As with the 2021 legislation, House Speaker Tim Moore championed this year’s bill, pointing to rioting and looting in downtown Raleigh he saw close up in June 2020 as evidence that current laws aren’t enough of a deterrence to protect the public and property. The violence occurred amid otherwise peaceful protests following the murder of North Carolina native George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

“Those who hijack otherwise peaceful demonstrations to cause chaos and destruction in our communities must be held accountable,” Moore said after Cooper’s announcement. “Our communities will be safer now that this bill will finally become law.”

Nearly 30 groups wrote Cooper this week asking him to veto the measure. These bill opponents said the new and more severe crimes would intimidate people from speaking out in peaceful protests for fear of unjustified arrests.

Nine other states have passed similar protest laws since June 2020, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.

“Laws like this have frequently been used to target peaceful protestors, especially minorities and those fighting against racial oppression,” said Sam Davis with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “We are disappointed that Gov. Cooper chose not to veto this unnecessary and unconstitutional law.”

Cooper on Friday also chose not to pick a fight on separate legislation related to hotel guests by announcing it would become law without his signature. He had a vetoed the nearly identical bill in 2021 addressing when longer-term guests receive broader rights usually reserved for home and apartment renters. This year’s measure received support from 15 House Democrats.

The rioting bill, which will now take effect in December, will increase punishments already in place — potentially by a couple of years or longer — for crimes of willfully participating in a riot or inciting one to cover more severe circumstances. They will include if a rioter brandishes a weapon or causes serious bodily injury. New crimes also will be created for a rioter who causes a death or someone who incites rioting that contributes to a death.

The bill will let property owners with damaged businesses seek compensation from a riot perpetrator equal to three times the monetary damage. And defendants accused of rioting or looting could have to wait for 24 hours before getting a bond set. The 2021 bill Cooper vetoed could have extended the wait to 48 hours.

The hotel legislation was backed by the state’s lodging association. Hoteliers were worried about the difficulties of removing guests who violate guest rules. It clarifies that landlord-tenant rules, which make it more difficult to remove an occupant, don’t apply when a person has stayed for fewer than 90 consecutive days.

Critics have said the change could harm families in desperate straits financially who have nowhere else to go for temporary shelter because of the lack of affordable housing.

Cooper mentioned Friday that positive modifications to the bill are being discussed by lawmakers but said he remained “concerned that this bill will legalize unfair treatment for those who need protection.”