Increased riot penalties go into effect Dec. 1 in North Carolina

Legislation targeting "rebellion, insurrection and terrorism" will become law without the signature of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Updated: March 19, 2023 - 3:38am

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Rioters intent on looting North Carolina businesses will face stiffer penalties after a new law takes effect later this year.

Legislation targeting "rebellion, insurrection and terrorism" will become law without the signature of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, he said in a statement. Both chambers of the General Assembly passed what has become known as the "riot bill," and the six Democrats voting for it in the House of Representatives signaled a veto override was imminent should the governor choose a previously used route.

The law goes into effect on Dec. 1.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said his proposed legislation was motivated by what happened following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the events in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. In both cases, several metropolitan cities in North Carolina and throughout the nation were overrun by protestors, leaving significant damage for urban business owners – who were doubly jeopardized by COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates.

"What we're absolutely not doing is punishing lawful protests," Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, said during discussion in the Senate, where the GOP has a supermajority. He said House Bill 40 "protects the First Amendment rights of those who want to protest peacefully."

Cooper saw it another way in releasing his statement.

"I acknowledge that changes were made to modify this legislation's effect after my veto of a similar bill last year," Cooper said. "Property damage and violence are already illegal and my continuing concerns about the erosion of the First Amendment and the disparate impacts on communities of color will prevent me from signing this legislation."

The Senate vote was 27-16 with Mary Wills Bode, D-Wake, the only aye vote alongside Republicans, none of whom voted against. There were no GOP votes against in the House, and those crossing the aisle to vote for the bill were Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford; Laura Budd, D-Mecklenburg; Abe Jones, D-Wake; Garland Pierce, D-Scotland; Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe; and Michael Wray, D-Northampton.

The legislation clarifies active conduct is required for criminal prosecution of certain riot offenses and would increase the penalty for willfully engaging in a riot that causes property damage of $2,500 or more, or serious bodily injury, to up to three years and five months in prison.

Those convicted of brandishing a dangerous weapon or using a dangerous substance during a riot face up to two years, and one month in prison.

The punishment increases to up to 13 years, four months in prison for anyone who "willfully incites or urges another to engage in a riot" resulting in death. The new law also increases penalties for anyone who assaults emergency personnel.

The law will further allow victims to sue perpetrators of damage or injury for three times the actual damages sustained, as well as court costs and attorneys' fees. The law includes a provision to prohibit magistrates from setting bonds for 24 hours, though a district judge could act sooner. The intent is to create a "cooling off period" for those accused.

Cooper said other legislation on his desk, Senate Bill 53 addressing hotel safety issues, will also be allowed to become law without the governor's signature.