Georgia bill to protect police might weaken penalties for killing officer

    Georgia State Patrol officers monitor the tote board in June as state lawmakers approved legislation to create new protections for them. The bill makes it a “bias motivated intimidation” offense to “maliciously and with the specific intent to intimidate, harass, or terrorize” a police officer, a firefighter or an emergency medical technician because of their occupation. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    Legislation state lawmakers intended to add protection for law enforcement might create the unintended result of lessening penalties if an officer is murdered.

    Gov. Brian Kemp’s office is analyzing House Bill 838, a controversial piece of legislation that passed in the final days of the session as part of a compromise to get a Georgia hate crimes law passed. The bill includes a provision that calls for up to five years in prison or a fine up to $5,000 if someone is convicted of a bias-motivated crime causing a serious injury or death of a police officer or other emergency responders.

    Punishment for Georgia now can include the death penalty or life in prison.

    Republican senators pushed to add protections for first responders if someone maliciously intimidates, harasses or terrorizes a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical technician because of their occupation.

    Removing police officers from the hate crimes legislation appeased a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers moved to action by protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice after the shooting death of a Black jogger in Glynn County by three white men. 

    The sentencing statute is worth a deeper examination before defense attorneys and prosecutors debate its meaning in courtrooms, said Georgia State University law professor Russell Covey.

    Defense attorneys will likely push for their clients to be tried under the five-year statute to avoid chances of a lifetime sentence if convicted of killing an officer, he said.

    Meanwhile, prosecutors will argue that the law is not intended to displace the more serious penalty but instead to tack on more time, Covey said.

    “In Georgia, the rule is if the same criminal conduct violates two statutes then the court is instructed to impose the lesser of the two sentences,” he said. 

    Republican Sen. Jesse Stone, of Waycross, said the sentencing language of the bill is worth reviewing before the governor signs it into law, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

    Rep. Bill Hitchens, who sponsored the initial version of House Bill 838 that was unrelated to police protections, said he did not have much time to review the Senate’s revisions before the Georgia House narrowly approved it last week.

    He said lawmakers don’t intend to let anyone avoid serving a potential life sentence for a crime like murder.

    “I like to do a lot of research before I introduce them because that’s an ongoing problem sometimes that the bill does things that you don’t plan,” Hitchens said.

    House Democrats, the Georgia NAACP and other civil rights organizations also criticized the provision of House Bill 838 that empowers an officer to sue any person or group who files a false complaint against them or abridges their civil rights.

    Hitchens said he supported the right of officers to sue over false complaints after learning of instances where people intentionally lied about the conduct of officers.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.