Texas lawmakers pass bills targeting protesters who block roads, use fireworks, laser pointers
Other bills still up for consideration include one increasing penalties for assaulting first responders and one that aims for more police accountability
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas lawmakers have sent two bills to Gov. Greg Abbott that would boost criminal penalties for protesters who block roads or use fireworks or laser pointers against law enforcement officers.
Both measures were inspired by Republican-led criticism of tactics used in some protests over police brutality after George Floyd died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last year.
Under House Bill 2366 — given final approval Monday by the Texas Senate on a 27-3 vote — it would be a third-degree felony to use a laser pointer against an officer, rising to a first-degree felony if the result is “serious bodily injury.”
First-degree felonies carry a maximum term of life in prison or a five- to 99-year sentence, while a third-degree felony can be punished by two to 10 years in prison.
Under current law, illegal use of a laser pointer carries a fine of up to $500 but no jail time as a Class C misdemeanor, said Sen. Bryan Hughes, R- Mineola, the Senate sponsor of HB 2366.
“We want to protect law enforcement as much as we can,” Hughes told the Senate, adding that the devices can damage eyes and cause burns.
Sen. Borris Miles, D- Houston, said he initially opposed the bill as an overreaction to the dangers posed by laser pointers. After further research, however, Miles said he supported the legislation.
“There are some stronger lasers that can cause serious injury from a distance,” Miles, a former law officer, told Hughes. “We should continue to protect all law enforcement.”
HB 2366 also bans using fireworks in ways that interfere with police officers or help somebody flee from arrest.
It would be a state jail felony (180 days to two years in jail) to use fireworks that are sold to consumers and a second-degree felony (two to 20 years in prison) if explosive fireworks, such as those used in public displays, are fired at officers.
But regardless of the type of fireworks used, the offense would rise to a first-degree felony if an officer is seriously injured while on duty.
Protests blocking roads targeted
Passage of HB 2366 came two days after the Senate, voting 25-5 without discussion, gave final approval to HB 9, making it a state jail felony to knowingly block roads in ways that impede emergency vehicles that are using lights and sirens or that block access to a hospital.
Otherwise, blocking a road would remain a misdemeanor.
HB 9 also includes a minimum sentence of 10 days in jail, even if a defendant is sentenced to community supervision.
After Saturday’s vote, Abbott said he will sign HB 9 into law.
“Peaceful protest doesn’t include blocking roadways and preventing emergency vehicle access. That chaos won’t be tolerated in Texas,” Abbott said on Twitter.
‘Riot’ bill still working through House
In a related effort, the Texas Senate in April approved Senate Bill 912 by Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R- Lakeway, that would enhance criminal penalties for protesters who assault an on-duty police officer, firefighter or emergency medical personnel during a “riot.”
A riot under state law is defined as a gathering of seven or more people whose actions create “an immediate danger” of injury or property damage; obstruct law enforcement or government services; or use force or threats to disturb others or deprive them of legal rights.
Under SB 912, it would be a state jail felony to knowingly assault an on-duty first responder during a riot.
The bill also would require judges, upon conviction, to order defendants to pay the cost of restoring or replacing damaged property.
SB 912’s fate will depend on how quickly the Texas House can act before the midnight Tuesday deadline for a vote on Senate bills. Buckingham’s bill, however, is low on Tuesday’s House calendar, decreasing the chances of gaining the vote needed to send SB 912 to Abbott.
Democratic efforts tied to George Floyd stall
On the other side of the response to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Democrats have had little success advancing efforts to reform the way police interact with citizens.
Most provisions of the George Floyd Floyd Law Enforcement Accountability Act, introduced in both houses, have stalled, including a bid to end the immunity that protects police officers from lawsuits for using excessive force.
The original bill also said officers may use force only if they first tried to “de-escalate the situation,” issued a warning that force will be used, used force proportionate to the threat posed by the suspect and immediately ended the use of force when the suspect complied.
The Floyd Act also would have required police departments to adopt formal procedures involving disciplinary actions against officers.
In a compromise negotiated last month, the Senate approved two Democratic bills that were inspired by Floyd’s death:
• SB 68, requiring law officers to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force.
• SB 2212, requiring officers to call for immediate medical help if a suspect is injured.
The House approved SB 2212 on Sunday, but the bill will return to the Senate to consider a minor change made by the House.
SB 68 is on the House calendar for a potential vote on Tuesday. That vote, however, will have to take place before a midnight Tuesday deadline before the use-of-force bill can be sent to Abbott.
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