Iowa Legislature passes bill that increases penalties for some protest-related offenses, protects drivers who hit protesters from lawsuits

Protesters returning to the Pentacrest on Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

The Iowa Legislature has passed a bill that increases penalties for people engaged in protest, increases qualified immunity for police officers and shields drivers who strike protesters from civil lawsuits.

SF 342, the so-called “Back the Blue” bill, passed the Republican-led Senate on a party-line vote on Monday, and passed the House on Tuesday with all but two Democrats — Rep. Wes Breckenridge of Newton, and Rep. Kenan Judge of Waukee — voting against it. The House’s remaining 33 Democrats were joined by two Republicans — Rep. Brian Lohse of Bondurant and Rep. Jeff Shipley of Birmingham — in opposing the 35-page bill.

“The policy in this bill is going to hurt people in our communities,” Sen. Kevin Kinney, a Democrat from Oxford, said when the Senate debated the bill on Monday. Kinney, who served for decades as a deputy before retiring from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, pointed out that making some offenses protesters might be charged with penalties rather than misdemeanors will make it harder for anyone charged and convicted to find work or housing.

Kinney highlighted how SF 342 expands the crime of “eluding the police” to include not pulling over for unmarked police cars, including those driven by officers not wearing uniforms.

“I drove an unmarked car for 13 years,” he said. “I didn’t wear a uniform for 13 years. I knew that if I went to stop someone and they didn’t stop, they couldn’t be charged with eluding. I’ve told my wife, I’ve told my daughter, that if you’re out on the interstate or if you’re on a rural road, and someone goes to stop you, you call 911 and you go someplace that’s lit so you can see and there are other people around. To be charged with eluding for this is crazy.”

Another provision of the bill revises the current definition of “criminal mischief” to include any of a broad range of acts that “damaged, defaced, altered, or destroyed any publicly owned property, including a monument or statue.”

The bill also expands the definition of disorderly conduct and increases the penalty for unlawful assembly.

Republican supporters of SF 342 said the changes were needed following the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. But as Cedar Rapids Democrat Sen. Rob Hogg pointed out, the Legislature never felt the need to act when the annual VEISHA celebrations at Iowa State University turned riotous and resulted in property damage. (ISU discontinued the springtime event in 2014 after 92 years, due to repeated problems.)

“Oh, those were just some white kids acting poorly. We don’t need to increase the criminal penalties,” Hogg said, “… but when Black people cry out in their angst …[what is] the Republican answer in the legislature? … Let’s increase the penalties by 150 percent.”

Hogg and other Democrats argued SF 342 will disproportionately affect minority communities in Iowa. Since 2008, legislators have been required to have the Legislative Services Agency produce a Minority Impact Statement for any new law that “creates a public offense, significantly changes an existing public offense or the penalty for an existing offense, or changes existing sentencing, parole, or probation procedures.” Republican leaders in the Legislature did not request a Minority Impact Statement for this bill.

The bill also preempts some authority local governments currently have. It would prohibit any local government or law enforcement agency from having an officer perform official duties unless the officer is able to carry a firearm. Another provision limits the discretion local governments and police agencies have in creating enforcement priorities.

“A local entity or law enforcement departments shall not adopt or enforce a policy or take any other action under which the local entity or law enforcement department prohibits or discourages the enforcement of state, local, or municipal laws,” the bill states.

In addition to creating new penalties, the bill offers new protections to both law enforcement officers and motorists who strike protesters with their cars.

Qualified immunity, which largely prevents law enforcement officers from being sued for their actions, would be introduced into Iowa State Code for the first time, if SF 342 becomes law. Law enforcement in the state currently have qualified immunity as the result of an Iowa Supreme Court decision, but SF 342 would codify and expand that immunity.

“The public here in Iowa, when we took it to the ballot in November, was sick and tired of seeing cops across the country and Iowa being disrespected,” Sen. Dan Dawson, a Republican from Council Bluffs who works as an investigator for the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, said on Monday. “Our response to that: Qualified immunity and some other provisions here to give them some more protections.”

Although the bill would largely prevent members of the public from suing law enforcement officers, it would enable law enforcement officers to sue individuals and groups who file complaints against them, if the complaints are dismissed.

The bill also notably gives protection to drivers who strike people marching in the streets during a protest.

The driver of a vehicle who is exercising due care and who injures another person who is participating in a protest, demonstration, riot or unlawful assembly or who is engaging in disorderly conduct and is blocking traffic in a public street or highway shall be immune from civil liability for the injury caused by the driver of the vehicle.

A court would have to establish that a driver engaged in “reckless and willful misconduct” before the driver could be held civilly liable for injuring a protester.

Most of these provisions in the bill were in the “Back the Blue” bill Gov. Kim Reynolds introduced at the beginning of the legislative session, and which Reynolds described as a top priority in her Condition of the State speech, so the governor is expected to sign SF 342 into law.

The final version of the bill does not include a provision proposed by Reynolds that would have eliminated all state funds for any municipality that reduces the budget of its law enforcement agency. Lawmakers in the House were concerned that provision might inadvertently penalize small, rural communities facing financial shortfalls, instead of just preventing larger cities from undertaking reforms that shift some responsibilities away from police agencies, resulting in budget reductions.

The final version of the bill also omits proposals by the governor that addressed racial disparities in law enforcement, including a ban on racial profiling and a statewide system to track data on police stops.

Speaking in the House on Tuesday, Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat from Waterloo, contrasted the legislative actions on SF 342 with its action last June, when both chambers unanimously passed a police reform bill.

“Just because you’ve chosen to turn your back on the hard work doesn’t mean that I will,” he said. “I’m naïve enough to keep pushing forward. I’m so afraid to become a Drew Edwards or George Floyd moment, that I cannot conceive stopping my pursuit to help us find a more perfect union.”

Smith is one eight people of color serving in the Iowa House, four of whom were elected last November. All the members of the Iowa Senate are white.