FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – A House of Representatives committee from Kentucky passed a controversial bill on Wednesday that would allow the attorney general to indict protesters instead of the local attorney general.
House Bill 479, approved 11: 5 by the House Judiciary Committee, contains a section that focuses on specific charges brought against protesters, including some arrested this summer by Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
“There is no intention of harming anyone, just seeing that our laws, which we put in our Kentucky bylaws, are enforced,” said Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, the bill sponsor. The purpose of the law is “not to suppress a person’s civil rights to peaceful protest”.
Blanton testified that the goal of the law is to give the attorney general the ability to indict and prosecute more crimes than are currently allowed.
Opponents say, however, that a certain part of the law is wrongly directed against protesters and appears to be in response to widespread protests last year following the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
Some lawmakers said they were “appalled” by the law, calling it an attack on freedom of expression.
Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, said, “Anyone who claims to care about individual freedom must be without a voice.”
“… It is hard to see this as anything other than addressing people who are involved in the vital work of the first adjustment right to gather and protest.”
Prominent Louisville attorney Ted Shouse argued the bill would focus on protests-related charges while ruling out other more serious charges.
“This section of the bill would allow the attorney general to prosecute and track disorderly conduct, disrupt a freeway, not disperse (cases),” said Shouse, speaking on behalf of the Kentucky ACLU. “This is a blanket grant of absolute authority to the Attorney General.”
During the summer, dozens of protesters arrested and charged with crimes during racial justice demonstrations in Louisville were indicted by local prosecutors.
In July, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell decided to drop the crime charges against dozen of protesters arrested at Cameron’s home.
In theory, the bill would allow Cameron to re-charge these people.
Cameron’s spokeswoman Elizabeth Kuhn said in an email that Cameron “respected Mike O’Connell’s decision to drop the crime charges against those who protested at his home” and “he would not attempt to reinstate those charges” .
And Blanton argued that Cameron “won’t be there forever. This is for every attorney general.”
He said the purpose of the law is to help local prosecutors who for whatever reason cannot or do not want to prosecute such cases. Blanton also said he believed Scott should never have been charged.
In a statement, O’Connell said he was “absolutely against” the part of the bill that allows the Attorney General to pursue local protest crime cases.
“The Jefferson County people voted me their district attorney, not an individual or a handful of lawmakers,” said O’Connell. “I am not afraid of the job. Cases come into our office and we review them, we put the work on. … It is important that the prosecutors have this discretion in order to fulfill our role as attorney general – to try to do the next right thing – and then ultimately be accountable to our local communities. “
Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, a member of the Justice Committee, was arrested in September near the headquarters of the Louisville Free Public Library and the First Unitarian Church at the intersection of South Fourth and York streets.
The Louisville Metro Police Department accused Scott of being part of a large group that would not disperse. The charges against her were dropped in November.
She was one of five lawmakers who voted against the bill. There was an unsuccessful attempt to remove the parts of the bill that dealt with protesters.
“In the midst of this body claiming it wants to deal with issues of racial justice and trauma – but this bill is the exact opposite of that and an attorney general who has done nothing but contribute to conflict across the Commonwealth and instead is committed to it focus should be healing – I’ll vote no, “said Scott.
Amy Burke, an assistant attorney general in charge of law enforcement, told the committee that her office had not asked for that particular section to be included in the bill. She also said her office has no intention of re-indicting and prosecuting Scott. Instead, Burke said the provision would allow easier prosecution of cases that cross jurisdiction lines.
She also said the firm has constitutional lawyers who can work with and assist local prosecutors.
“If it did happen, (local prosecutors) might feel like they are in a mud situation where they don’t have many options,” added Blanton.
In his statement, O’Connell said his office had “checked the facts and evidence” for all protest-related arrests.
“We have dismissed cases where there was no evidence of violence, property damage or significant obstructions to roads and bridges,” he wrote. “We have made progress in other cases.”
The bill will now be received by the entire House of Representatives at a later date.
Meanwhile, Scott’s Democratic colleagues aggressively reprimanded the bill.
“That conversation was deeply troubling,” said Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, Louisville, D. “We are told all the time that you have to be thick skin to be here and we do, but we are also told that if you have thick skin and have to show up here, that’s not personal. We hear Testimonials Concerning You I am appalled. It is so disturbing that we treat one of our colleagues like this. ”
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