State News

Lawmakers hold public hearing on bills that would make rioting a felony

The state Senate approved Tuesday a bill amending the state Constitution to boost the rights of crime victims

Image By: Amileah Sutliff

A state Senate committee heard public testimony Thursday on three bills that would make rioting a felony and prohibit certain actions.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee took up Senate Bill 303, 304 and 305 sponsored by state Sen. Van H. Wanggaard, R-Racine.

Senate Bill 303 defines a riot as a public disturbance and act of violence involving at least three people with a clear and present danger of property damage or personal injury. A riot can also be constituted as a gathering with the ability to immediately execute a threat of the same acts.

Those involved in a riot would be charged with a felony.

Also under the bills, blocking or obstructing a highway as part of a riot would be punishable by a misdemeanor.

Senate Bill 305 calls for individuals carrying a firearm or a dangerous weapon while participating in a riot to also be charged with a felony.

Opponents of the bill raised concern over the potential of arresting those who are protesting peacefully.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, testified Thursday, calling the bills a restraint on free speech, free assembly and free association in a testimony.

“This is what this bill is all about: suppressing the freedoms of speech,” Rothschild said. “It’s also about suppressing the freedom of assembly and association, as it reeks of guilt by association.”

Rothschild also expressed concern over how rioting will be defined in the legislation and in courts.

“This bill would make it a felony to ‘riot’ and it defines ‘riot’ in a peculiar and unconstitutional way,” said Rothschild. He also added that defining a riot by the presence of three people causing a disturbance an “awfully small number.”

Last year a riot sparked in Milwaukee after the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith by a former Milwaukee police officer. Those in favor of the bill say the legislation is necessary to protect citizens and avoid violence.

“These bills are there to prevent violence from taking over our streets,” Wanggaard said. “Buildings have burned to the ground and people have lost their lives.”

“[Violence] is just unacceptable period,” he added.

Wanggaard also said peaceful protests wouldn’t be affected by the legislation.

“I don’t have a problem with people that peacefully gather and people that bring forward a grievance,” Wanggaard said. “That is what our country is built on.”

The bills were amended to include the word “intentionally” in front of the word “participates” to define those who should be charged with rioting. Rothschild questioned the ambiguity of the legislation, specifically how “intentionally” will be defined.

“It’s unclear. And because it’s unclear, an overzealous prosecutor could scoop up everyone and slap the riot charge on them all,” Rothschild said.

Wanggaard expressed that police officers will have to prove the existence of a violent intent by rioters. He also said law enforcement will be present during protests to make sure that people who are peacefully gathering have the ability to present their viewpoints.

Rothschild followed up by saying acts such as violence, property damage, threats, disorderly conduct and conspiracy are already criminalized.

“Whether the authors of this legislation like it or not, the First Amendment and the Constitution of the United States continues to protect our rights to speech, to assembly and to free association,” said Analiese Eicher, director of the One Wisconsin Institute Program in a statement. 

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