Today at 1pm, the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee will hold a hearing on SB 171, a bill that would criminalize being present when someone else commits a crime against public order, and would waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits related to ‘unlawful assemblies.’
Livestream of the meeting will be available here.
Statement of Common Cause Georgia Executive Director Aunna Dennis
Right now, in Georgia, mere presence at the scene of a crime is not sufficient evidence to convict someone of being a party to the crime.
But this bill seems intended to change that. It creates a long list of covered “public conveniences” – including bars, stadiums, bus stations, bakeries, grocery stores – it’s a long list. And anyone who happens to be in one of these “public conveniences” when threats are made can be prosecuted for unlawful assembly. And if you’re one of seven or more people who are nearby, it can be a felony prosecution.
Think about that. Under this bill, if you’re in a bar, and somebody else starts making threats, you can be prosecuted. Just being in the room can make you guilty.
The costs of increased incarceration is why one economist estimated that a similar law, in Florida, will cost Sunshine State taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
And most of us out in the communities have a pretty good idea of how prosecutorial discretion is likely to be exercised under this bill, and who’s likely to end up in jail.
This bill is intended to chill our freedom of assembly and freedom of speech rights. It has huge First Amendment implications, but it’s being rushed through the legislative process because… well, we don’t know why. We don’t know why this bill is even being considered. It’s completely unnecessary. Unlawful assembly and acts that compromise public safety are already covered by other provisions of Georgia law. All this bill does is criminalize being nearby when somebody else violates the law.
It also will have huge implications for municipal and county budgets, because it waives sovereign immunity and allows anyone to sue local jurisdictions, for any amount, for anything that can be construed as being related to an unlawful assembly – including their lawyers’ fees! And that’s going to come out of taxpayers’ pockets in the form of increased municipal insurance costs.
There’s no need for this bill. Just because Florida passed a similar law, that’s no reason why Georgia needs to do the same. Our existing laws already criminalize unlawful assembly. All this bill would do is make it a crime to be nearby when somebody else does something wrong.
Read today’s testimony on SB 171 here.