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Politics & Government

Bills Aimed at Curbing Riots in Wisconsin Raise Constitutional Questions

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An Assembly committee on Thursday took testimony on three bills designed to curb rioting

State lawmakers are considering several bills that would limit riots and punish people who participate in them.  The bills define a riot as a public disturbance during a gathering of at least three people;  one makes participating in a riot a felony.

A second measure would instruct police to arrest people who block thoroughfares during a riot. The third bill would charge people with a felony, if they carry weapons while participating in a riot.

Republican state Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield authored the bills that seek to limit rioting. Spiros says he was inspired by the unrest last summer in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. On a Saturday afternoon in August, a police officer fatally shot an armed suspect who was fleeing, after a traffic stop. The incident sparked two nights of protests, which sometimes turned violent.

"An 18-year-old bystander was shot in the neck by an individual who participated in the riot and was armed with a firearm. During the same riot, five firefighters were unable to put out fires at local businesses because of shots being fired at them and bricks being thrown at their trucks,” Spiros said.

Here's a breakdown of the bills:

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Milwaukee police union President Mike Crivello attended the public hearing Thursday, to speak in favor of Spiros' bills. Crivello says in particular, he agrees with the provision that would require police to arrest anyone who blocks a thoroughfare during a riot.

“As riots escalate, the need for immediate access, lifesaving in nature or restorative peace deployments coming into an area must not be delayed through obstruction. Blocking of emergency vehicles is a tactic of rioters, which is an absolute danger to all present,” Crivello said.

A couple people criticized the measures, including Patricia Hammel, of the National Lawyers Guild of Madison. She objects to a provision that could find anyone who participates in a riot guilty of a felony. Hammel fears the law would apply to hundreds of people who are participating in peaceful protests, that later are deemed "riots," because one person threatens violence.

“A riot is now going to be a felony conviction, it’s going to follow somebody around for a long time, it could result in the loss of their voting privileges, it’s much more serious than a misdemeanor,” she said.

Hammel says the bills aren't necessary, because there are already laws on the books that address offenses, such as disorderly conduct and criminal damage to property. Another opponent was Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He questions the constitutionality of the measures.

“This bill would restrain and abridge our free speech and our assembly rights and it would do so in a way that’s expressly prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court. This bill would make it a felony to riot and it defines riot in a peculiar and an unconstitutional way. On the peculiar side, the bill states that a minimum of three persons assembled together would constitute a group that’s engaging in a riot and that seems like an awfully small number to me,” Rothschild said.

The bills' author, Rep. John Spiros, told the audience in the hearing room that some portions of the measures could be modified. The Assembly judiciary committee didn’t take action on the proposals. The panel is expected to vote at a later date.