A proposal by state Sen. Doug Ericksen to increase penalties for protesters is a bad idea coming at a terrible time.
The Ferndale Republican should abandon his proposal to “criminalize” protests that cause economic harm and “create a new crime of economic terrorism.”
Now is the time for elected leaders to help people move past the presidential campaign’s divisive rhetoric and get back to working on real problems facing the state and country.
Branding protesters as terrorists is not legislating to help the people and businesses of Washington. It is chumming the pool of hyperpartisans by generating inflammatory headlines with a proposal unlikely ever to become law.
Ericksen wants to create a class C felony for protests intended to cause economic disruption and jeopardize life and property.
That may sound like he’s getting tough on bad apples. But Washington already has multiple laws for prosecuting protesters who trespass, interrupt commerce and harm people and property.
Ericksen’s proposal would have little effect and could actually lead to lesser sentences for protesters, according to one of Washington’s most experienced prosecutors in this realm.
“As a practical matter, I’m not sure it would change much,” said Russ Hauge, a former Kitsap County prosecutor and defense attorney who has both prosecuted and defended numerous protesters blocking trains headed to the Bangor submarine base.
Current penalties for trespassing — up to gross misdemeanors — have potential sentences more significant than unranked, class C felonies, Hauge said.
Either way, jail time is up to a year, though first offenders generally see much less jail time, if any.
But judges hearing misdemeanors in district court have more latitude, because they aren’t subject to the guidelines of the state Sentencing Reform Act. They can maintain jurisdiction for twice as long, up to two years, by suspending sentences and applying probation.
Jurors, meanwhile, are unlikely to convict protesters out of concern for First Amendment rights, Hauge said.
Businesses Ericksen is siding with could end up worse off. To prove economic disruption, companies would have to open their books and participate in trials. That could cost them more than the disruption of a protest.
Today’s protesters are mostly liberals opposing a Republican president. Tomorrow’s protesters may be conservatives opposing a Democrat. All have First Amendment rights that should be considered sacred by lawmakers of all stripes.
As Ericksen’s peer, state Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, stated last week, “People have died for this right – in city streets here at home and on battlefields around the world. Any threat to this inalienable right is a direct threat to our democracy.”
Concerns about punishment for harmful behavior being too light may be brought to the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, to which Hauge was recently appointed.
Ericksen should take his gripe to the commission, instead of throwing an incendiary proposal into the busy Legislature.