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Wisconsin committee OKs bills to punish rioters

Wisconsin State Capitol (WLUK/Don Steffens)

MADISON (AP) -- Republicans continued their drive to pass a package of bills cracking down on riots Thursday, pushing the legislation through a committee and clearing the way for a full vote in the Assembly.

The Assembly judiciary committee approved the legislation during a short morning meeting. All of the committee's Republicans voted for the measure. The panel's two Democrats, Reps. Gary Hebl and Chris Taylor, voted against the package, saying its language is so broad hundreds of people could be held liable for one person's criminal actions.

"This is so fraught with problems in terms of First Amendment rights of people to freely assemble and engage in protest," Hebel said.

Rep. John Spiros and Sen. Van Wanggaard, both Republicans and former police officers, introduced the bills in response to riots that followed a police shooting in Milwaukee last year.

The bills define a riot as a public disturbance during a gathering of at least three people that includes violence or a threat of immediate violence. Participants in such gatherings could be charged with a felony. Going armed with a dangerous weapon during a riot would be a felony as well. Anyone who blocks a thoroughfare during a riot could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The legislation sparked immediate complaints from Democrats, who warned peaceful protesters standing near someone who becomes violent could be arrested and charged.

The judiciary committee adopted a number of Spiros amendments Thursday designed to tighten the language. The revisions redefine a riot to be a public disturbance during a gathering of at least three people that includes intentional violence or an intentional threat of violence. They also state that anyone who uses a dangerous weapon during a riot could be charged with a felony. That would allow people to carry dangerous weapons during a riot.

The changes weren't enough to win Hebl and Taylor's support.

"I would be more comfortable if three people had to have intent," Taylor said. "You could get swept up in this if you're there."

Republican Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt agreed the legislation was too broad during a public hearing last month but said Thursday that the amendments alleviated his concerns.

Rep. Ron Tusler, also a Republican, said Thursday he was worried that if one person threw a bottle during a gathering others could be convicted of a felony. He said he would ask Spiros if he'd revise the bill further to establish that prosecutors couldn't charge someone who leaves a riot when it becomes violent.

Still, he added that hopefully prosecutors would seek justice rather than piling up convictions and he agrees with the bills' goal of keeping marches and protests peaceful.

Spiros aide Erin Mellon said Spiros has spoken to Tusler about his concerns and is open to discussing ways to improve the bills.

Since the bills have cleared committee, any further amendments would have to come on the Assembly floor. The Legislature's next floor sessions are set for the first week in November but it was unclear if the legislation would come up for a vote then. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, didn't immediately return a message Thursday.

Protesters burned businesses, pelted police with rocks and bricks and shot a man during two nights of rioting in Milwaukee in August 2016. The unrest came after Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown fatally shot Syville Smith during a foot chase. Investigators said Smith had a gun, dropped it but was preparing to throw it over a fence when Heaggan-Brown shot him in the arm. Heaggan-Brown shot Smith in the chest as Smith was lying on the ground.

Smith was black, as is Heaggan-Brown. The officer was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but was fired after he was accused of sexual assault in an unrelated case.

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