BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota House lawmakers advanced four bills Monday aimed at giving law enforcement more tools for responding to Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
The package of bills, which some opponents criticized as “knee-jerk legislation,” would double the penalties for some riot offenses and create a new felony offense for individuals who cause economic harm while committing a misdemeanor.
The legislation, which still needs to be considered by the state Senate, also would make it a misdemeanor to wear a mask while committing a crime.
Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, said he and other members of the House Judiciary Committee carefully considered the proposals with the goal of protecting the rights of North Dakota people.
“The Judiciary Committee is working really hard to balance the rights of North Dakota citizens to protest and the rights of North Dakota citizens to live under rule of law and conduct their day-to-day activities,” Jones said.
Legislators voted 72-19 to approve House Bill 1193, which creates a new Class C felony offense for causing $1,000 or more in economic harm while committing a misdemeanor.
The new charge would apply to situations such as pipeline protesters who attach themselves to equipment to stall construction of the pipeline.
“This bill protects constitutional rights for those that are peacefully protesting,” said Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It just has consequences when they cross the line.”
Opponents questioned whether a felony offense was appropriate.
“I am opposed to knee-jerk legislation because it’s almost always bad legislation,” said Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck.
Legislators voted 63-27 to increase penalties for riot offenses, going against the committee’s do-not-pass recommendation.
House Bill 1426 would elevate offenses such as instigating a riot of 100 or more people or providing firearms or weapons for a riot from a Class C felony to a Class B felony. That would double the maximum penalties for such offenses to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
Engaging in a riot would become a Class A misdemeanor under the proposal with a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $3,000 fine. Currently the offense is a Class B misdemeanor with 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers testified during the hearing that individuals can be guilty of engaging in a riot if they fail to disperse when ordered by law enforcement, even if they remain peaceful during the event.
Legislators voted 85-6 in support of House Bill 1293, which would allow law enforcement to issue $250 citations for trespassing and property that is posted.
Jones said the proposal is modeled after how speeding tickets are issued in North Dakota and could reduce some of the cases that need to go through the court system.
Lawmakers voted 69-22 in favor of House Bill 1304, which makes it a Class A misdemeanor to wear a mask while committing a crime or fleeing from a crime. The bill was amended from its initial proposal to address concerns about it being unconstitutional.
House members rejected House Bill 1383, which would make it a Class B misdemeanor to loiter “in an unusual manner that warrants justifiable and reasonable alarm.” The bill, which failed in an 11-79 vote, had language that was vague, overly broad and would not withstand constitutional challenges, said Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Casselton.
About 700 people have been arrested in connection with Dakota Access protest activity since Aug. 10.
The bills, which legislative leaders had asked to be “fast-tracked,” will now be considered by the Senate. The bills carry an emergency clause, which means they would become effective immediately if approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.