The right to protest is one of the most-respected rights in the United States. The First Amendment protects the right of US citizens to peacefully protest. However, there are limits even to our most sacred rights. The right to protest does not allow rioting or inciting to riot.
Protests that become violent and destructive are known as riots. The federal government, as well as the states, have laws against rioting and inciting others to riot that everyone should be aware of before engaging in protests. Below is detailed information about federal rioting laws. (Criminal.findlaw.com)
Rioting and Related Offenses
A riot is a civil disorder that causes a public disturbance against property, people, or authority. Riots usually involve the destruction of property and/or violence. However, the term is used related to ‘unlawful assembly’ as well. While Americans have the right to free speech in the First Amendment, cities have the right to regulate public demonstrations by mandating permits or limiting the demonstrations to a certain area.
Demonstrations that do not have permits or occur outside of designated areas may be called a riot, or the related offense called unlawful assembly, which usually involves peaceful demonstrations but without permits.
Besides the federal charge of rioting, which covers the disruptive or destructive actions themselves, there are other related crimes that can be charged:
- Inciting to riot: When a person encourages others to engage in a breach of the peace without acting themselves. This crime can involve signs, statements, or conduct that encourages others to riot.
- Conspiracy to riot: Involves planning illegal actions that would cause a breach of the peace. However, a conspiracy conviction requires the accused to have taken an overt action to further their plan.
State and Federal Rioting Laws Overview
Federal rioting laws are covered in 18 US Code section 2101 and 2102. These statutes explain what rioting is and what prosecutors must prove to convict people of rioting.
Federal law states that a riot is:
- A public disturbance involving at least one violent act
- Committed by at least one person who is part of a group of at least three people
- The actions of the group are a clear and present danger and would cause damage, injury, or would create a clear and present danger.
However, federal law makes clear that a person should not be charged with rioting just for advocating ideas in writing or orally, or for expressing beliefs – as long as the beliefs do not encourage acts of violence.
Most states have laws regarding riots, whether the person is part of a riot or inciting to riot. If you have been charged and convicted or acquitted for rioting under state law, you cannot be charged under federal law for the same crime. State laws apply to people in the state’s borders for the commission of the crime of rioting. Federal laws have more limits.
Federal jurisdiction in rioting crimes occurs when the accused engages in rioting and travels between states or countries to do so. Or, the accused used interstate and/or foreign commerce, such as radio, telephone, mail, or television to communicate before their criminal acts.
It is a federal crime when a person travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses mail, telephone, radio, or television with intent to do the following:
- Incite a riot
- Organize, promote, participate in or encourage a riot
- Commit any act of violence as part of a riot
- Aid and abet anyone inciting or is participating in a riot
To understand when rioting or inciting a riot may be charged, it is helpful to consider a few examples.
At a political protest involving a large group, there is a heavy presence of police watching the crowd, as well as manning barriers. During the protest, tensions escalate between the police and protesters. At some point, a protester picks up a megaphone and tells the crowd to fight the police. This person could be charged with rioting or incitement to riot for this call to action, even if no riot occurs.
Another example is where a protester at the same riot becomes frustrated and begins breaking windows. This action encourages the crowd to begin to riot. Whether the protester is guilty of other offenses, he would not be guilty of inciting a riot because his actions did not specifically encourage others to riot.
Also, after an unpopular jury verdict, there is a gathering at a local community center. An angry preacher from the town addresses the crowd and criticizes the verdict. He says that someone should teach the city or police a lesson.
The following day, people from the meeting start a riot that causes many businesses to be looted and burned. The preacher would not be charged for inciting a riot because his words were vague and did not encourage a violent response immediately.
George Floyd Protests, Rioting, and Looting
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, 46, an African-American, for allegedly attempting to buy cigarettes at a convenience store with a counterfeit $20 bill. Twenty minutes after the first police officer arrived at the scene, Floyd was unconscious with his neck pinned to the pavement, showing no signs of life. (NYTimes.com).
The arrest was captured in a 10-minute video, showing police officers not responding to the man’s pleas that he could not breathe. He died later at a local hospital.
Second-degree murder and manslaughter charges were filed against fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Accessory to second-degree murder charges were also brought against three other police officers that have since been fired – Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao.
In the days after, protests erupted across the United States and the world against US police brutality and discrimination. While the right to peacefully protest and speak out is enshrined in the US Constitution in the 1st Amendment, many of the protests eventually devolved into riots and looting in dozens of cities across America.
Thousands of people were arrested across the country, and at least 50 have been arrested for federal rioting crimes, according to US Attorney General William Barr. (Forbes.com)
Barr also made the following key points:
- Most protesters were peaceful and were legally exercising their First Amendment rights.
- Some criminal groups ‘exploited the opportunity to engage in rioting and looting,’ with some hijacking protests to further their ‘violent agenda.’
- Federal prosecutors are focused on ‘violent instigators’ at George Floyd protests and are continuing to make arrests for rioting and incitement to riot.
- Most police officers engage in their work responsibly and bravely, but it is clear that some African-Americans are mistreated at the hands of police, and many ‘lack confidence in the American justice system.’
Over 10,000 people had been arrested at protests as of June 4, 2020, with 62,000 National Guard troops deployed. After 10 days of protests, at least 12 had died, and hundreds were injured. (Forbes.com)
George Floyd’s brother Terrence has said repeatedly in the media that his brother would not have wanted violence to occur in his name, asking that protesters behave peacefully.
It is unclear how many people will eventually be convicted for rioting and incitement to riot, but many are facing serious federal charges that could stick with them for life, if they are found guilty.
Punishments for Rioting
At the federal level, rioting can be punished by fines, up to five years in federal prison, or both.
To convict a person of rioting, the prosecutor must prove the following:
- A riot took place: There must have been at least three people involved in violence or destruction for it to be defined as a riot.
- The person knew they were participating in a riot: If a person was just at the wrong place at the wrong time and did not know what was happening, you did not have the required mental state to be convicted of rioting.
- YouTube Star Jake Paul Charged With Unlawful Assembly and Criminal Trespassing: Jake Paul of YouTube fame was charged with criminal trespassing and unlawful assembly after police said he filmed looting inside an Arizona mall last month. Police in Scottsdale said they had gotten hundreds of tips in response to looting at Scottsdale Fashion Square. Paul was seen in video footage of the looting in May watching rioters enter the mall, as well as filming inside the mall when it was closed. The police added that Paul was an active participant in the riots. (com)
- Woman Charged With Felonious Incitement to Riot After Posting Video on Her Facebook Page: Alexandria ‘Ally’ Lyons posted a Facebook Live video in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she encouraged others to loot and cause destruction, according to state police. She also allegedly drank beer on video that had been stolen from a local bar, police said in court records. Lyons, 22, also posted a video of a party at her apartment after the riots, where clothing stolen from a local business was displayed. (com)
- Right-Wing Extremists Charged With Incitement to Riot at Las Vegas Protests: Three right-wing extremists with US military backgrounds were arrested for incitement to riot at George Lloyd protests in Las Vegas yesterday. Army reservist Andrew Lynam, 23, former Navy man Stephen Parshall, 35, and former Air Force man William Loomis, 40, were held on $1 million bonds each on terrorism-related charges. (com)
- No Bail for Boston Man Who Allegedly Fired at 21 Police Officers During Riots: A Boston man who allegedly fired a pistol at 21 police officers during riots and protests earlier this week will be held without bail, according to court documents. John Boampong, 37, was arraigned on 21 counts of armed assault with intent to murder related to the incident that occurred near Providence Street in Boston. (CBSlocal.com)
- COVID-19 Lockdowns Viewed As Worsening Riots and Hitting Businesses Harder Across US: Major US cities, already reeling from months of COVID-19 lockdowns, are now being hit with the effects of riots and looting in the wake of protests over George Lloyd, an African-American who died in police custody in Minneapolis last week. Some business owners said that much of the destruction may have been stopped if stores had more people in them. (com)