COLUMBUS, OH – MAY 28: Protesters demonstrated in Downtown Columbus near the statehouse in solidarity with nation wide protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images.
Ohio House Republicans passed legislation Friday that would expand the definition of “obstruction of justice” broadly enough to capture protest activity, according to social justice activists and civil rights advocates who testified against the bill.
The legislation would qualify failing to follow a “lawful order from a law enforcement officer” as the obstruction of justice.
It also prohibits a person from interfering with or obstructing a police officer at work with “reckless disregard” as to whether the action diverts or obstructs the officer’s attention. This includes entering or placing an object somewhere that’s large enough that the officer cannot reach a person outside the area.
Republicans said the legislation establishes basic protections for officers after a year of increasing violence and tumultuous social justice protests.
Democrats said the legislation is unhelpful and divisive. Rep. Jeff Crossman, D-Parma, said it “fans the flame of culture wars and is yet another dog whistle about race.”
Crossman offered an amendment to exempt anyone from charges who uses or threatens to use force against an officer if they’re “acting in good faith” to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The amendment failed on party lines.
Additionally, the legislation would prohibit a person from throwing any object or substance at an officer “with intent to distract.”
The bill largely addresses conduct that’s already illegal under Ohio law, according to analysis from the Legislative Service Commission. It provides prosecutors more charges they can impose on alleged violators.
The expanded obstruction of justice charges would be second-degree misdemeanors, or fifth-degree felonies if they cause physical harm to a person. Second-degree misdemeanor convictions can yield sentences up to 90 days. Fifth-degree felonies yield sentences between six and 12 months.
After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, an unarmed black man suspected of using a fake $20 bill, on camera last summer, massive racial justice protests formed around the country. Activists criticized racial profiling and the excessive use of force from officers unto people of color.
Some of the initial protests descended into violence and looting. However, researchers reviewed 2,400 demonstrations nationwide between May and August 2020 and found fewer than 220 (about 7%) turned violent.
Regardless, Republican-controlled legislatures around the U.S. have introduced and passed different proposals to expand on or build new charges that can be filed against protesters. A more extreme proposal in Ohio sought to expand citizens’ rights to shoot in perceived self-defense during a “riot” — a loosely defined term in Ohio law.
“This bill is not an anti-peaceful protest bill,” said Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Lynchburg, one of the lead sponsors. “The key word is peaceful.”
The version of the bill advanced by the House Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday is significantly narrower than what was introduced. “Taunt[ing]”an officer would have qualified as the obstruction of justice under the original bill draft.
Republican Reps. Jeff LaRe of Violet Twp. and Wilkin sponsored the proposal. In their written testimony to the committee, they denied any intent to infringe upon individuals’ rights to free speech and assembly. They said it’s about protecting law enforcement officers.
“Peaceful protests have turned violent when bad actors who are not involved in a police matter begin to taunt, harass, and overall interfere with law enforcement officers performing their duties,” they wrote.
Racial justice groups, public defenders, the ACLU, religious organizations focused on social justice and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity spoke out against the bill.
“The language in this bill will prevent innocent bystanders from exercising their Sixth Amendment rights per the U.S. Constitution,” said Tom Roberts, president of the NAACP Ohio Conference.
“With the excessive force issues among our law enforcement here in Ohio and across the country, the timing of this bill is inappropriate and insensitive to many communities of color.”
Advocacy groups representing police and prosecutors testified in support of the bill. Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson, representing the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, claimed some people seized on the unrest last summer as “an avenue to promote violence.”
House Bill 22, he said, would outlaw “diversionary tactics” from those seeking to distract, disrupt and impede law enforcement.
Analysts with the Legislative Service Commission, which conducts policy research for lawmakers, found the legislation will increase the number of offenders being sentenced to prison and may lengthen some terms. This could increase annual prison costs by between $3,000 and $4,000 per offender.
Thomas Quinlan — who formerly served as Columbus chief of police, including during the protests last summer — testified in support of the bill on similar lines.
In May, U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley issued a blistering, 88-page opinion prohibiting Columbus police from using tear gas, pepper spray, batons and rubber bullets against nonviolent protesters. He found officers used force “indiscriminately” and without provocation.
“This case is the sad tale of police officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok,” he wrote.
Just seven proponents testified in support of the bill, compared to more than 100 who opposed it, as noted by Ohio Legislative Black Caucus President Rep. Thomas West, D-Canton, in a statement after the vote.
He said the bill “further sows the seeds of fear” by attempting to criminalize the right to protest.
“This bill, not to mention similar legislation pending before this body, takes Ohio in the opposite direction of progress,” he said. “HB 22 will not promote the safety and security of our officers and of individuals exercising their First Amendment rights. It will only create more tension and potential for conflict.”
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
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