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Ky. Bill Criminalizes Insulting Police, Enhances Penalties And Jail Time For 'Rioting'

Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.
Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.

Kentucky Sen. Danny Carroll says he watched Louisville protesters insult and taunt police last summer and decided officers needed the ability to arrest them for it.

The former assistant police chief of Paducah says Senate Bill 211 isn’t designed to impede lawful protest, but to target protesters who “cross the line."

It would make it a crime to taunt police, but the measure, currently awaiting a vote in the Kentucky Senate, would do much more than that. 

It creates additional protest-related offenses including charges for providing supplies to rioters, and flashing a light at a police officer. It enhances penalties for protest-related activity requiring anyone charged with rioting to be held for a minimum of 48 hours. 

The measure would also extend legal immunity under the state’s stand-your-ground and castle doctrine laws to justify self-defense during a riot.

“[W]e are a civilized society, and that’s what we need to maintain,” Carroll, a Republican from Benton, said during a committee hearing. “And I think it’s time that we send a message in this commonwealth.”

Activists, lawmakers and attorneys hear a different message. They say the bill would have a chilling effect on First Amendment protected activities — and perhaps embolden extremists who want to harm racial justice protesters.

“This piece of legislation is going to do exactly what it is designed to do, which is shut up Black people, shut us down, strip away our right to protest and turn this into a police state,” said Rep. Attica Scott, a Louisville Democrat.

Legal immunity

Carroll, who did not return requests for an interview, said in a committee hearing that the United States was built on lawful protest and his bill would not undermine that. Rather it targets protesters who commit criminal acts, he said.

His legislation, however, would criminalize actions that are currently legal and protected by the First Amendment. 

The bill would make it illegal to insult, taunt or challenge police with offensive or derisive words or gestures. Carroll said the language is based on incidents that happened in Louisville during racial justice protests. 

“You see people getting up in officers’ faces, yelling in their ears, doing everything they can to provoke a violent response… I’m not saying the officers do that,” Carroll said. 

The bill would also: 

  • criminalize the act of aiming a light, a laser pointer, an activated horn or other noise-making device toward the head of a first responder. 
  • Outlaw camping on state property during or within 24 hours of a riot, unless the person identifies as a “homeless individual,” and allow police to confiscate the property, 
  • Hold people arrested on charges of rioting in jail for a minimum of 48 hours.
  • Outlaw “knowingly” providing supplies for a riot that can be used as weapons or dangerous instruments. 

ACLU Legal Director Corey Shapiro says the scope of the bill would in effect silence protesters, prevent dissent and limit First Amendment protected speech. 

For example, he said livestreamers and media could be arrested for literally shining a light on police activity at night. Meanwhile, people who provide protester supplies could potentially be charged with a crime, he said. 

“We know that the police rounded up milk cartons and destroyed volunteer supplies last summer and claimed it could be used as a dangerous instrument,” Shapiro said. “So people who are voluntarily donating water on a hot, sunny day are now potentially subject to a Class A misdemeanor.” 

Under Carroll’s bill, it would also be legal for a person to use “defensive force” to escape the vicinity of a riot or against anyone blocking their exit. State law defines a “riot” as a public disturbance involving five or more people whose conduct threatens to damage people or property, or substantially obstructs law enforcement or government functioning.  

Attorney Philip Lawson with the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says the bill would extend to riots the same level of self-defense protections granted under the state’s stand your ground and castle doctrine laws. 

“In essence, if they meet these requirements, they are not only immune from criminal prosecution but they are also immune from any kind of civil action for damages,” Lawson said. “Under certain circumstances, if they win, they are entitled to their fees.” 

Louisville defense attorney David Mour, who represented many protesters charged last year with rioting, says the bill would provide a legal shield for extremists to show up at protests armed, or in vehicles, harm protesters and claim self defense.

“I call it the Rittenhouse bill.” That’s a reference to Kyle Rittenhouse, who faces first-degree homicide charges and after shooting three people, killing two, during racial justice protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year.  

As an example, Mour brought up one of his own cases from last summer when a driver pulled a gun on protesters marching along S. Hurstbourne Pkwy. 

“If this statute had been in effect then, he could have shot 20 of those protesters, shot [my client] and said, Well, they came to my car. I felt like I was imperiled,’” Mour said. “That’s what we are going to see.”

Rep. Scott, who represents Louisville, participated in racial justice protests and was arrested on a rioting charge that was later dropped. She calls the legislation “terrifying.” She said the measure sends a signal to racists that it would be acceptable to run over protesters.    

“Senate Bill 211 is maintaining systems of whiteness that keep people oppressed, that keeps the government on people’s necks, that gives people the right to hurt, harm and endanger us,” Scott said. 

Enhanced Penalties

In committee, Carroll said people were terrified of the protests that erupted in Louisville last summer. He told a story about a neighbor whose daughter was “afraid to go home” because of the protests. 

“We just cannot allow things like this to happen in our commonwealth. There are peaceful avenues to get messages out. That’s what we are a civilized society and that’s what we need to maintain,” Carroll said.  

But those protests began, in part, because Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police in her home. Protesters say they’re fighting for equity in criminal justice, housing, food access, health care and in every other system that perpetuates the disenfranchisement of Black people.

“All this bill is going to do is allow for police to continue to overpolice Black and Brown communities,” said Carmen Jones, a protest organizer with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “They say this is just for protesters but I can already see regular Black and Brown people in the community getting locked up for cussing out a police officer.”

Louisville police arrested Jones last summer on charges of second degree rioting — one of more than 50 people in the street at the time of the arrest, according to the police report. 

That day, police used sound cannons and pelted Jones with pepper balls that left large welts all over her body. Jones told WFPL News she was in the streets as an act of civil disobedience, but she never destroyed anything. 

“Violence is when something or somebody is harmed or broken. We don’t touch people, we are the ones to be touched, but even when violence is inflicted upon us, we still don't respond with violence,” Jones said.    

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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