News: Quick Takes

Omnibus criminal justice reform bill is on the move in the Senate

police, government buildings, general assembly
police, government buildings, general assembly

N.C. senators are moving forward an omnibus criminal justice reform bill that would make a wide range of changes to state law in response to recent cases of rioting, violence against first responders, and accusations of police brutality.

Senate Bill 300 covers a number of things — from requiring mental health screenings for law enforcement officers to increasing penalties for rioting to requiring police to intervene if they see a fellow officer using excessive force.

The Senate Judiciary Committee gave its stamp of approval to S.B. 300 on Monday, May 10, and the Senate Rules Committee followed suit the next day, setting up a floor vote in the near future.

“We’ve worked closely with the Police Chiefs’ Association, the Police Benevolence Association, the Sheriffs’ Association, the Conference of DAs, the ACLU, the North Carolina Justice Center, the John Locke Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity,” said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Columbus, a primary sponsor of the measure. “They have all had input into the bill. We’ve worked to have a pretty general consensus on this and it only took us 40 versions and about 10 amendments to get here, but we’ve got us in a good place.”

Amendments in committee

Before the vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmakers voted on three additional amendments to S.B. 300. The one that drew the most attention would revise state law to permit families to view police bodycam footage within five days of an incident involving death or seriously bodily injury to a possible suspect. 

Police would be in the position of petitioning the courts to block the release of the footage to family members, which is a reversal of the current policy that puts the onus on the family.

The amendment was crafted and passed the committee with bipartisan support, following the debacle in Elizabeth City over the release of bodycam footage to the family of Andrew Brown Jr.

“For weeks, Senate Republicans have committed to reviewing the current laws related to body-worn camera footage at the appropriate time,” said Britt. “Families deserve the chance to view footage of a serious incident as soon as possible, and in working with the Legislative Black Caucus we identified reasonable improvements to the existing process.”

Another amendment would increase the penalty for those who resist arrest resulting in harm to a police officer. Under current law, resisting arrest is a misdemeanor regardless of the outcome, but the amendment increases the penalties to as high as a felony depending on the level of harm to the officer.

Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association spoke in favor of the amendment. “We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Comply now, complain later,’ and this amendment would support that concept. Hopefully, it would encourage more people to adhere to that concept,” Caldwell said.

Democrats on the committee raised concerns about the amendment’s implications for unlawful arrests.

“We should focus on de-escalation tactics for police officers,” said Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg. “In my years of working in the justice system, I’ve seen so many individuals and suspects who suffer from mental health trauma and substance abuse. Ratcheting up felonies is in no way going to protect the police officer or the public.”

House action

On the House side, lawmakers have been moving parts of S.B. 300 in separate bills. Monday, that chamber OK’ed House Bill 805 in a 88-25 vote, with 23 Democrats joining 65 Republicans in voting for the bill. H.B 805 would establish a new level of felony penalties for rioters who cause property damage or serious bodily injury or death to others, including physical violence to first responders.

The bill allows business owners who sustain damage, or people physically harmed, to sue the perpetrators for up to three times the actual damages sustained, in addition to legal fees.

House Bill 436 — which passed the House May 5 in a unanimous 117-0 vote — would require mental health screenings for police as well as periodic mental health check-ins, while House Bill 546 — passed unanimously the same day — would require officers who see colleagues using excessive force to intervene.

House Bill 547, which also won unanimous approval in that chamber, would require organizations that certify local law enforcement to search a national database of de-certifications — maintained by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training — before certifying the officer.