Ohio votes for bill expanding crimes at protests police call ‘riots’

Second Amendment

Ohio’s House Republicans voted to create new crimes for protests that law enforcement deems riots over the objections of Democrats Wednesday. 

House Bill 109 passed in a party-line vote, 59-35.

Republicans said the legal changes would protect peaceful protestors along with law enforcement. But Democrats strongly disagreed, saying the leeway Ohio officers have when they call an event a riot opens the door to selective enforcement and abuse.

Anti protest or anti-riot?

When Rep. Cindy Abrams, R- Harrison Township, brought HB 109 for a vote she said she wanted to be clear, “Vandalism, looting and violence are not free speech.”

Her bill with Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, would create new felonies like riot assault and riot vandalism. It would also increase the penalties for misdemeanors like disorderly conduct that occurred during a riot. And it would expand Ohio’s corrupt activity laws to include people who knowingly helped plan a riot – leaving organizers open to civil lawsuits following events that turned violent. 

“But it’s important to know exactly what constitutes a riot,” Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said. 

Ohio Revised Code says a riot can be declared when four or more people commit disorderly conduct with the intent to commit another misdemeanor. Leland said that could mean five people standing in a street blocking traffic. 

That’s not what most people think of when they hear the word riot, Leland said. 

And the disconnect gets to the problem groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio have with HB 109.

“We have concerns when it comes to enforcement and consideration of enforcement that it will be aimed much more at groups like Black Lives Matter,” ACLU lobbyist Gary Daniels said in November when the bill passed through committee. 

HB 109 is one of four bills moving through the legislature after the nationwide racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Republicans insisted their bill would discourage rioters of all shapes and sizes.

“This is not a racial issue, not even close,” Carruthers said. “This issue is about someone throwing a brick through a window.”

But Rep. Monique Smith, D-Fairview Park, said current law was enough to prosecute the people who vandalized the statehouse in 2020, so the bill’s purpose seemed to be creating “a chilling effect” on peaceful protests. 

Protecting firearms

Republicans also passed another bill to ban law enforcement from confiscating firearms during a statewide emergency. 

House Bill 325 passed 62-35 along party lines. 

Democrats questioned why this was necessary when Gov. Mike DeWine never restricted access to firearms or gun stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Republicans said the bill protected Ohioans’ Second Amendment rights. 

The National Rifle Association has pushed similar bills in other states.

Police reform still stalled

HB 109 and 325 are both headed to the Ohio Senate for votes, but a long-promised police reform bill has yet to be introduced. 

Abrams, who promised to co-sponsor the bill, said in July that she and Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, were still working on it. 

Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

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