PHOENIX — Despite a major scandal facing Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office over recent protest prosecutions, state lawmakers are on the verge of passing a bill that would give law enforcement more discretion and power to punish demonstrators.
The bill, HB2309, would create a new felony offense and significantly increase the penalties for minor crimes if officers declare that an assembly is unlawful and violent.
Rep. Bret Roberts said he introduced the bill because of the protests immediately following the police killing of George Floyd.
“This bill is intended to give those individuals that choose to partake in what’s supposed to be a peaceful protest, and give them a moment of pause and ask themselves, ‘Do I want to attend this event?’” Roberts said during a recent committee hearing. “I need to ask myself, ’Is there the potential that this could go awry and people’s lives and property could be in jeopardy?’ That’s the intent of the bill.”
First Amendment attorneys and defense lawyers said a bill meant to dissuade people from assembling and protesting is clearly unconstitutional.
“It is likely that if HB2309 became law, it would be stuck down,” attorney Dan Barr told ABC15. “The definition of the crime of ‘violent or disorderly conduct’ is both vague and over-broad in that it would criminalize conduct that is protected by the First Amendment.”
So far, the bill has passed through several steps on a Republican party-line vote. The final legislative step for HB2309 is a full vote in the Senate before it’s sent to Governor Doug Ducey.
The most recent hearing was on March 18 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Roberts played a clip from ABC15’s coverage of the protests following Floyd’s death that showed people lighting fireworks in the street.
But community activist Bruce Franks Jr., who was targeted and charged with multiple felonies based on false police statements this summer, criticized the lawmaker for not playing clips from the station’s “Politically Charged” investigation.
“Sen. Roberts played a clip from ABC15. But what he didn’t play is the 'Politically Charged' clip that talked about the collusion between the police department and the prosecutors to silence protesters and bring false charges,” said Franks, who is a former state lawmaker from Missouri.
He added, “What we’re doing here is giving them more tools to politically prosecute.”
HB2309 would create a new felony criminal offense called “violent or disorderly assembly.”
In addition to allowing police and prosecutors to charge anyone at the protest, the bill would also increase several misdemeanor crimes — like obstructing a thoroughfare — and make them felonies if they were committed during a protest that police designate as violent or disorderly.
Critics raised concerns about the added discretion that would be given to police and prosecutors, who have been exposed for abusing their power.
“It’s the same police officers, and I’ll remind folks, who brought national embarrassment on our state by exchanging a challenge coin with neo-Nazi imagery to celebrate a shooting of a protester in the groin,” said Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist for ACLU Arizona. “The police can declare an unlawful assembly for any reason.”
The senate committee hearing got tense at times.
Sen. Petersen scolded an advocate who challenged the one-minute time limit that the committee imposed on those who wished to testify on the bill.
After being told to “wrap it up,” Joel Edman with the Arizona Advocacy Network and Foundation responded, “Thank you, Mr. Chair. I appreciate the irony of limiting speech on a bill about limiting speech. But I’ll ask you to stand up for freedom and vote no.”
Peterson responded, “You know what? Stop that. You know what? You know who decides who speaks or who controls order of this committee and makes sure everybody can get a chance? That’s my job. And with your attitude, if we don’t get everybody, not everybody gets an opportunity to speak. So I don’t appreciate the disrespect.”
Republican lawmakers also protested when Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat, explained his vote and criticized Roberts for the intent of his bill.
“We should all vote no, specifically for that reason. (Roberts) wants them not to speak about murders of people of color. He wants to chill them from…” said Quezada before he was cut off.
Rep. Vince Leach interrupted him by calling for a point of order because he said Quezada was imputing the bill’s sponsor.
Petersen agreed and instructed Quezada not to say anything about Roberts.
Editor’s note: This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at ABC15.com/protests. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.