New penalties proposed for rioting, assault

A bill heard Feb. 24 by members of the Judiciary Committee would define rioting in state law and create new and expanded punishments.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist17' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Joni Albrecht'>Sen. Joni Albrecht</a>
Sen. Joni Albrecht

Under LB111, sponsored by Thurston Sen. Joni Albrecht, an individual who participates in or organizes a riot would be guilty of a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both. An individual found guilty of the offense also could be required to pay restitution.

The bill defines a riot as a disturbance in a public place, prison or jail involving an assemblage of three or more persons which, by tumultuous and violent conduct, creates grave danger of substantial damage to property, serious bodily injury to persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or another governmental function.

Albrecht said she brought the bill in response to “outside groups” that she said incited violence against law enforcement and damaged property during widespread protests for racial justice in 2020.

“We must provide law enforcement and county attorneys the tools that hopefully discourage and deter, but certainly appropriately punish, outside violent interests from causing harm,” she said.

If damage directly resulting from a riot is valued at more than $5,000, the charge would be elevated to a Class IV felony, punishable by up to two years imprisonment with 12 months post-release supervision, a $10,000 fine or both, as well as restitution.

The bill also would classify obstructing a public right of way and refusing a public safety officer’s request to move as a Class I misdemeanor. An attempt to obstruct or interfere with a lawful meeting, procession or gathering would be a Class II misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both.

The definition of criminal mischief already in statute would be expanded under LB111 to include property damage and unauthorized graffiti suffered by a member of law enforcement, the armed services or an elected or appointed official. The offense would be considered a Class IV felony. If such damage is inflicted upon a government building, school or hospital, the offense would be a Class I misdemeanor.

A person found guilty of either offense could be required to pay restitution and would be liable for a $5,000 fine for second and subsequent offenses.

Among other provisions, LB111 also would establish penalties for assault of a public safety officer or health care worker. First degree assault would include causing serious bodily injury during the commission of their official duties and would be classified as a Class ID felony, punishable by three to 50 years imprisonment and an additional $5,000 fine.

Brad Johnson, director of the Lancaster County Department of Corrections, spoke in support of LB111. He said including correctional officers in the bill’s protections would improve everyone’s safety.

“Assaultive behavior of any kind in a correctional facility is dangerous and unacceptable,” Johnson said. “When an inmate is willing to use violence against a staff member, the safety and security of the entire facility is at risk.”

Mark Bonkiewicz of Omaha also supported the bill, saying it was an appropriate response to the violence that occurred last year.

“During the summer of 2020, Americans witnessed unlawful mobs destroying public and private property, assaulting first responders and killing first responders and innocent citizens,” Bonkiewicz said. “LB111 is an example of powerful legislation that will protect all Nebraska citizens.”

Opposing the bill was Spike Eickholt, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska. The proposal would create unnecessary new offenses, he said, and is intended to discourage individuals from exercising their legally protected rights to protest and assemble.

“There’s already existing felonies and crimes to hold people [accountable] for damage done during a protest,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB111.

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