Utah Legislature to study strengthening the state’s riot statute

After a summer of raucous protests, Utah’s lawmakers expressed support Tuesday for a review of the state’s “rioting” statute, with an eye toward imposing tougher penalties on those who are convicted of damaging property.

State code currently defines a riot as two or more people engaging in “tumultuous or violent conduct” that “knowingly or recklessly creates a substantial risk of causing public alarm.” Rioting is a class B misdemeanor but becomes a third degree felony if, in the course of the conduct, any person “suffers bodily injury, or substantial property damage, arson occurs or the defendant was armed with a dangerous weapon.”

At the behest of the Utah Sheriffs Association, the state’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to open a committee bill file to study the rioting code and look at how it’s handled in Utah compared to other states.

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon, who testified before the committee, said he’s been present at some of Salt Lake City’s protests and saw some people who were “truly there to protest peaceably, carry their signs, get their message out.”

“And then there was these sometimes we dub as ‘lone wolves’ who are interested in trying to exploit or take opportunity of this riot and do criminal behavior,” he said.

Amid concerns about these actors, Arbon advocated for lawmakers to adopt stricter laws against rioting, similar to those that have been looked at in Tennessee and Georgia in the wake of national protests against police brutality.

John Feinauer, a policy analyst from the state’s Office of the Legislative Research and General Counsel, said the statute in Tennessee, signed into law by the governor last month, requires a mandatory 45 day hold in jail for a criminal offense deemed “aggravated rioting,” which would be a “notable departure” from Utah statute. The state has also enhanced fines for people charged with rioting and changed the way restitution for damaged property must be repaid, he said.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry and a retired Utah state trooper, said the state ultimately wants to encourage protesting, “but we do not want to encourage rioting.”

Madelena McNeil, a community organizer who previously faced life in prison for charges that included a count of rioting related to a July protest, said on Twitter that the review of the statute “can mean almost nothing good in the short-term.”

“But it IS an opportunity to have a conversation about the way government defines riot and uses it to privilege some speech and oppress other speech,” she added. “I want the riot statute to be challenged as often as possible. It’s inappropriate and retaliatory and it exists in different but commonly oppressive forms all over this country.”

McNeil was charged last month with first-degree felony criminal mischief with a gang enhancement and rioting related to a July demonstration where protesters spread red paint on the road outside the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office in downtown Salt Lake City.

A retired judge was hired by District Attorney Sim Gill to take over the prosecutions and avoid a conflict of interest in the cases against eight protesters accused of damaging the building. The independent prosecutor reduced the charges, unilaterally cutting decades from their sentences, and McNeil now faces a third-degree felony charge of criminal mischief after her rioting charge was replaced with class C misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.

During July’s protest against police brutality, some demonstrators took metal rods to the building, smashing windows. Some police were injured, and officers responded by pushing some protesters to the ground and hitting them with clubs. Two protesters were treated at a hospital, and many reported minor injuries after police charged at protesters.

A late May protest also turned violent as protesters set two cars on fire and threw rocks at the windows of businesses and cars while police responded with rubber bullets and arrests. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall ordered a curfew in response to the violence.