Four bills aimed at increasing penalties for destructive and dangerous conduct during times of civil disorder will be heard by a Senate committee Wednesday.
The first of the four bills – all sponsored by Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Harrington – would make it illegal to manufacture, transfer, possess or use Molotov cocktails or other incendiary or explosive devices during a riot.
The second would create the crime of looting, which would be classified as a class C felony.
The third would create the crime of riotous burning, which would be a class B felony unless another individual is injured as a result of the crime, in which case it would be a class A felony.
The fourth bill would make it a crime to destroy a public monument during the course of a riot.
“Delaware has, for the most part, escaped the extreme actions of mobs experienced elsewhere, and enjoyed the benefits of mostly peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights by people seriously expressing a perceived need for change,” the bill’s synopsis says.
“Other jurisdictions have been faced with situations where a lack of sufficient legal tools have impeded the ability of authorities to adequately protect both public and private property as well as the lives of the innocent.”
While Senate Bills 219, 220, 221 and 223 address actions that are already illegal in their own right, the bills would assign specific crimes to those actions depending on whether they took place during a riot.
That, according to Lawson, would provide additional tools for courts, law enforcement and prosecutors to protect Delawareans and their property.
“What prompted me to introduce them was concerns from the community, and even law enforcement, that the penalty for those things, if existing at all, are not a deterrent for this kind of behavior,” Lawson said in an interview with Delaware LIVE News.
“The idea is that if we make it strict enough, it may well be a deterrent, as opposed to a punishment,” he said.
Lawson said that when people engage in the type of behavior described in his bills, the public and perpetrators must know that Delawareans and their property will be protected, that justice will be served, and that there will be stiff penalties for those rioters.
That’s not what he saw during the May and June 2020 protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, he said. In many large cities throughout the country, wide-scale reports of shootings, looting and vandalism went on for weeks.
“We have not had that in Delaware to the same extent,” Lawson said. “Hopefully we’ll never have that but I think we have to have the laws in place to deter and prosecute if need be.”
He argued that individuals arrested during the summer 2020 protests were not prosecuted by Attorney General Kathy Jennings.
In Delaware, the majority of protests were peaceful, with the following exceptions:
- On May 31, 2020, looting took place in two stores at the Dover Mall.
- On May 30, 2020, several dozens of businesses in Downtown Wilmington were looted including a jewelry store, sporting goods store and local restaurants.
- On June 9, 2020, a group of protesters marched along U.S. Route 13 in Camden, blocking traffic and defying police orders. 21 protesters were detained.
- On June 12, 2020, the Delaware Law Enforcement Memorial was damaged and urinated on.
In a statement to Delaware LIVE News, Mat Marshall, communications director at the Delaware Department of Justice, said the department does not support the bills.
“The legislation is indeed duplicative, which is one reason why we oppose it,” Marshall said. “None of this would have applied to any protesters the DOJ declined charges against in 2020.”
He explained that the reason the DOJ did not pursue charges of assault, theft and arson against the protesters involved in the June 9 incident in Camden is that they were not accused of those crimes.
“We declined unclassified, nonviolent misdemeanor charges against some people charged with disorderly conduct,” Marshall said. “We already have the tools in the toolbox to address the behavior that Sen. Lawson fears could come to our state; we do not need to add new, politically-charged and politically-motivated crimes to the Delaware Code.”
He added that the Department of Justice has not dropped or declined charges against anyone arrested for theft or arson during the summer protests, and said that if anyone has not been charged it is because they were not found or arrested.
Where those kinds of arrests have been made, including the defacing of the Law Enforcement Memorial on June 12, Marshall said the department has consistently pursued charges including, but not limited to, burglary, theft and criminal mischief.
Lawson said he’s hopeful the bill will earn the support of Democrats and not become a partisan issue, but “the potential for it being one is great.”
Though the bills have largely come as a response to Black Lives Matter protests-gone-wrong, Lawson argued the bills have nothing to do with race.
“It purely has to do with behavior,” he said. “This isn’t a matter of Black Lives Matter or any other group or faction – it is simply the idea that whenever you destroy, when you burn, when you loot, then the public needs to have some protection from that.”
Asked if he thinks the bills will earn Democrats’ support, Lawson said “Who knows — one, it’s a Republican bill, and two, it’s a Lawson bill.”
If released from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the four bills will advance to the Senate for a vote.
Wednesday’s hearing will be live streamed. Participants, including those who wish to make a public comment, can register to attend the hearing at this link.
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that the Delaware Department of Justice chose not to prosecute rioters and looters following protests in Dover and Wilmington in May and June 2020. This version has been updated to clarify that the DOJ chose not to prosecute protesters on charges of disorderly conduct after they were detained on June 9, 2020, in Camden. Those protesters were not accused of committing any of the crimes Lawson’s bills address.
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