The Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill making any rioters who are from out-of-state or paid to riot guilty of a felony offense. Under the bill, it is considered a Class E felony for anyone who travels from outside the state with an intent to commit a crime or participates in a riot after being paid to do so. Courts must impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 days imprisonment for one offense, or 60 days for two or more offenses.
The House passed the bill on Tuesday, 73 to 20. Nearly all Democrats opposed the bill, with the exception of State Representatives Jason Hodges (D-Clarksville), Darren Jernigan (D-Old Hickory), and John Mark Windle (D-Livingston).
Tennessee Code identifies a riot as three or more individuals inciting a tumultuous, violent disturbance that creates grave danger of substantial property damage, serious bodily injury, or obstruction of law enforcement or government functions.
The only amendment adopted onto the bill introduced a severability clause. State Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) introduced that amendment.
State Representative Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro) and Bell are the sponsors on the bill.
During the final vote on the House floor, Terry explained that this bill was intended to protect Tennesseans that are attempting to protest peacefully.
“[This bill is] based on something called ‘social contagion theory.’ Basically, when someone does an act, or two or more people do an act, it becomes contagious,” said Terry. “And so, if you have someone there that’s peacefully protesting, then all of a sudden they get caught up in the moment – then they may end up with a charge of rioting, or potentially a charge of aggravated rioting. What we’re trying to do is prevent that.”
He reiterated this response to explain to the concerns of State Representative Larry Miller (D-Memphis) that this wouldn’t protect peaceful protestors.
State Representative Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville) asked how prosecutors could prove intent, or that an individual isn’t from Tennessee. He said he was worried that college students with out-of-state IDs could be punished with a felony for rioting under this bill.
Terry said that district attorneys were capable of discovering a person’s intent, such as through property found on an individual or evidence posted on social media, and their residence. He added that prosecutors would address the residential status of college students accordingly.
The legislation will now head to Governor Bill Lee for final approval. If approved, the law would go into effect on July 1.
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