At least three bills intended to protect professionals ranging from Little League referees to police officers from harm by toughening the state’s criminal code are making their way through the Arkansas legislature.
House Bill 1496, which aims to protect sports officials from physical assault, and House Bill 1561, which seeks to add charges for drivers who injure or kill road workers, passed the House last week with broad support and are set to come before the Senate. .
The House Committee on the Judiciary is expected to continue consideration of House Bill 1521, which would impose a criminal penalty for disarming a law enforcement officer, after the legislature returns from spring recess on March 27.
By creating new charges that prosecutors can use in addition to existing penalties, the sponsors said their bills would help deter people from harming those responsible. But in some cases, lawmakers have expressed concerns about targeting certain groups with special protections under the law and imposing additional charges on defendants who may already face extended sentences.
Rep. RJ Hook, who sponsors HB1496, told the House Thursday that his bill will help protect minor league sports officials, high schools and universities. He said a Mountain Home official was hospitalized after he was hit by a fan during a basketball game nearly a year ago.
“These guys make $60 to $70[in the game],” said Hook, the Bryant Republican. “It’s a part-time job for most of them, so we want to give them some protection.”
In crafting the offenses included in the current version of the bill, Hook said he worked closely with members of the House Committee on the Judiciary.
Under the bill, a person who “intentionally raises concerns of imminent bodily injury with a sports competition official” would be guilty of a misdemeanor in the first degree.
A person who causes bodily injury to an official with the intent to cause bodily injury will be guilty of a misdemeanor in the first degree and be fined not less than $2,500.
A person who causes grievous bodily injury to an official with intent to cause bodily injury will be guilty of a Class C felony. Under state law, a Class C felony carries a penalty of three to ten years in prison.
The bill would apply a Class B felony if someone causes grievous bodily injury to a sports official with the intent of causing grievous bodily injury. Conviction with a Class B felony carries a penalty of between five and 20 years.
Rep. Jimmy Gazzaway, R-Paragould, told the House that an offense that would carry a Class B felony was in line with existing law while an offense that would carry a Class C felony was an enhancement. Gasway said the $2,500 fine associated with the misdemeanor penalty for acting with the intent to cause bodily injury would also be an enhancement.
“I think it’s a well-justified bill,” he told members of the House of Representatives.
To ensure fans are aware of the penalties, Hook said the Arkansas Activities League will notify each of its member schools of the measure. Hook said he has already begun discussing the bill in Saline County and has reached out to tournament directors across the state who have said they will post notices of the new penalties at matches.
Rep. David Ray, R-Mommel, questioned why people who mistreat sports officials are subject to harsher penalties than people who mistreat anyone else.
Hook noted the shortage of athletic officials at the state and nationwide levels, and said adding protections could help with recruitment and retention. He noted that 22 other states have enacted protections for sports officials, and said organizations representing officials in Arkansas have requested the legislation.
A National Association of State High School Associations survey last year indicated that nearly 50,000 people have stopped working as high school athletic officials since the 2018-2019 season.
The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 75-4 with nine lawmakers present. The Senate referred the bill to its Judiciary Committee.
Ray, who voted against the bill, said during an interview on Friday that he is generally opposed to imposing any tough penalties on special groups of people.
“As far as possible, the law should be applied to people equally,” he added.
Rep. Nicole Clooney, D-Fayetteville, who also voted against the bill, said Friday that she always wants to make sure that the political reasons for the extra protection justify the enhanced penalties.
She noted that during the 2021 regular session, lawmakers were unwilling to impose heavy penalties to protect minorities and LGBTQ groups who have been frequent targets of hate crimes. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow prosecutors to seek longer prison sentences for violent criminals who target anyone in a “known and identified group”.
The bill, which former governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law, would require defendants convicted of such a crime to serve 80% of their sentences before they are eligible for parole.
“If we were going to increase the number of special classes, I would say groups like sports officials, while of course I don’t want them to be victims of violence, they certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my list of people.” “Who deserve special protection,” Clooney said. “I think the protections afforded these people under our current assault and battery laws are sufficient.”
Protecting road workers
Clowney and Ray voted for HB1561, which would impose penalties on drivers who commit a traffic offense and cause bodily injury or death to a construction worker in a highway work area.
And in cases where someone is doing dangerous work on behalf of the government, Ray said he feels the tougher penalties are justified.
Clooney also said that highway builders work in dangerous conditions and provide a service the public cannot live without or would be in great inconvenience without.
When introducing HB1561 to the House, Rep. Charlene Veit, R-Van Buren, said a constituent brought her the idea for the bill.
“Her father was just doing his job, working for a construction company building one of our highways,” she said on Wednesday. “He was off (Interstate) 630 when he was tragically hit and killed by a distracted driver.”
Viet noted a national increase in road work area accidents. Last year, state officials launched a campaign to ramp up enforcement of traffic violations in work zones after the deaths of two state Department of Transportation employees.
“These men and women are just doing their job,” Vitti said. “We must help and protect them.”
Under the bill, a person who commits a traffic offense while driving through a highway work area resulting in bodily injury to a road worker will be found guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree.
If the offense results in the death of a construction worker, the driver will be guilty of a Class C felony upon conviction.
The bill would apply to construction employees working for the Arkansas Department of Transportation and local jurisdictions. It also applies to state, municipal and county highway commission contractors.
Veit noted that other states including Texas and Oklahoma have similar laws. While driving through work areas in these states, Veit said drivers may encounter signs warning, “Don’t hit our workers, don’t pay $10,000.”
“I want us to think once, twice, thrice, and slow down and not strike our workers,” she said.
The bill passed by a vote of 96-0, and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, introduced HB1521 to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, saying that unlike many neighboring states, Arkansas has no penalty in its criminal code for people trying to disarm a law enforcement officer.
Lieutenant Jim Scott of the North Little Rock Police Department, who spoke about the bill during the meeting, said that under current state law, a person who attempts to seize a firearm or other weapon from an officer may only be charged with resisting arrest.
Brandt Carmichael, chief of the Camp Robinson Police Department, has spoken in favor of the bill, saying officers need a tougher charge than resisting arrest.
“Fight on a gun in the mud in a trench,” said Carmichael, “a lot of you probably haven’t done that before. I did.” “After all is said and done, the only charge against you is resisting arrest.”
Under the bill, a person who willfully uses physical force is punishable by taking possession of a firearm, nightstick, stun gun, “personal protection chemical dispenser” or any “other protective equipment or weapon” and intending to cause bodily injury to a law enforcement officer or others. The person will be guilty of a Class C felony upon conviction.
For the offense to apply, the officer must identify himself as a law enforcement officer and must wear a distinctive uniform or badge.
Clooney asked if the charge applied to a person who pulled an officer’s gun out of his hand while trying to resist arrest. Scott said the offense would not apply in those cases and officers would be responsible for explaining precisely what happened during the resisting arrest situation.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, noted that the bill could result in a person facing a felony in addition to the charges associated with resisting arrest and any offense for which they were arrested.
“Are we really gaining a lot by putting on an extra felony that is too large when you probably already have a large penalty that the accused will face?” Asked.
Creating the charge will make it easier for courts to track cases where perpetrators attempt to disarm officers, Scott said.
Jeff Rosenzweig of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers objected to a provision in the bill that presumed that a person “had a conscious intent to engage in conduct or cause a consequence in relation to a law enforcement officer.”
Rosenzweig said the provision is unconstitutional because the US Supreme Court has ruled that the state bears the burden of proof and cannot presume a person’s intent in criminal cases.
Wing told committee members that the language in his bill matched existing laws in other states. Assuming a reform was needed, Wing agreed to withdraw the measure and return it to the committee on March 28.
On Friday, Wing said in a written statement that he has been working with two of the committee members to “make sure they are satisfied with any modifications while maintaining full efforts to protect our police officers. I am grateful for their contributions.”
Information for this article was contributed by Noel Ohman and Jon Moritz of the Arkansas Democratic Journal.