Tennessee Governor Signs Bill Increasing Punishments for Rioters

August 22, 2020 Updated: August 22, 2020

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday signed a bill into law to boost punishments for rioters.

The law increased the punishment for illegal camping on state property not designated as a camping area from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony with mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days imprisonment.

The offenders will also be required to pay restitution for any property damage or loss incurred by the illegal camping.

Those who camp on state property illegally between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m and refuse to leave or return within 24 hours after being warned by officers will probably be subject to charges, according to the law.

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. William Lamberth (R-Tenn.) and passed in the House and Senate on Aug. 12. It became effective right after Lee signed it into law on Wednesday.

The law added several measures to protect state and private property against rioters.

Under current law, a vandal is published in the same manner as theft based on the fair value or replacement cost of the property damage. The law added that the value of state property should be calculated based on the cost of repairing, cleaning, and restoring the property.

The law also imposes a mandatory minimum 45-day hold if convicted of aggravated rioting, enhances the fine for obstructing emergency vehicles from accessing highways, requires a court to order restitution for damaging state property, and creates a Class C felony offense for aggravated assault against a first responder—which carries a $15,000 fine and mandatory minimum 90-day prison sentence.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU), a left-leaning legal assistance organization which had asked Lee to veto the legislation in an Aug. 14 letter (pdf), said Thursday that the group will be closely monitoring enforcement of the law.

“We are very disappointed in Governor Lee’s decision to sign this bill, which chills free speech, undermines criminal justice reform, and fails to address the very issues of racial justice and police violence raised by the protesters who are being targeted,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement obtained by The Associated Press.

Tennessee has a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both state legislative chambers, and will likely set an example for other red states.

A wave of protests and riots occurred in various cities around the country including Nashville in Tennessee after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck.

Rioters have damaged local businesses and committed arson, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said.

About 30 business and buildings were damaged overnight on May 31. Nashville police also arrested 25-year-old Wesley Somers for setting fire to Nashville’s Historic Courthouse.

Somers was charged with felony arson, vandalism, and disorderly conduct.

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