UPDATE: Feb. 28 ― Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R) announced Monday that the chamber will not hear a bill that would permit the government to seize protesters’ assets and prosecute them under a racketeering law designed to target organized crime.
Mesnard told The Arizona Republic he reached his decision after hundreds of constituents called his office to express their concerns.
“At the end of the day, I think the people need to know we are not about limiting people’s rights,” he said. “The sponsor is not about it, the governor is not about it, the government is not about that. The most efficient, expedient way to communicate that is to kill the bill.”
The Republican-led Arizona state Senate passed a bill on Wednesday that would permit the government to seize protesters’ assets and prosecute them under a racketeering law designed to target organized crime.
Senate Bill 1142 seeks to limit political demonstrations by expanding the definition of a “riot” to include actions that damage property, and making rioting an offense that can be prosecuted under racketeering statutes. If the measure passes in the GOP-controlled state House and is signed into law, protesting in Arizona would be on par with terrorism.
Republican lawmakers say the legislation is intended to limit the influence of paid protesters, a popular conservative conspiracy-theory scapegoat for grassroots demonstrations that have been intensifying since the election of President Donald Trump. There’s no evidence of any paid protest movement.
The legislation is written in a way that would allow protesters to be charged ― even if they don’t do anything. As the Arizona Capitol Times reports, racketeering laws permit police to arrest people for planning to commit a crime ― before anything has actually happened. Even those who don’t participate in a demonstration could be charged. The bill’s fact sheet explains that “an overt act is not required” to prove conspiracy.
The state could seize assets for restitution. As the Phoenix New Times observed: “Plan a protest, lose your house.”
“The purported purpose for this bill isn’t based in reality,” Steve Kilar, the communications director for the Arizona ACLU, told HuffPost in an email. “The bill’s supporters are using the false ‘paid protestors’ argument to connect this bill to what is commonly the purpose of anti-racketeering laws: targeting the financial incentives of criminal enterprises.
“But if this bill were to pass, ‘riot’ would join ‘terrorism’ as the only racketeering crimes in Arizona that would not require a financial incentive,” Kilar said.
“If this bill were to pass, ‘riot’ would join ‘terrorism’ as the only racketeering crimes in Arizona that would not require a financial incentive.”
The bill’s implications for free speech apparently are of little concern to state Sen. Sonny Borrelli, the primary sponsor.
Borrelli said in comments published by the Phoenix New Times that the First Amendment is “not absolute,” and that his bill would protect “the civil liabilities of the citizens.”
It’s true that there are limits on free speech ― yelling fire in a theater, for example. Still, the ACLU isn’t sold on Borrelli’s argument.
“There’s no doubt this proposal would chill the public’s right to free speech and assembly because it could allow police and prosecutors to go after the organizers of peaceful protests if a handful of participants engage in unlawful acts,” Kilar said. “Furthermore, the conduct this bill allegedly addresses is prohibited by existing law and there’s no evidence that additional deterrence is necessary to prevent rioting or the incitement of riot.”
The bill passed the state Senate on a party-line vote, with all 17 Republicans voting in favor, and all 13 Democrats opposed.