At least three bills intended to shield professionals ranging from Little League umpires to police officers from harm by stiffening state criminal law are working their way through the Arkansas Legislature.
House Bill 1496, which aims to safeguard athletic officials from physical abuse, and House Bill 1561, which seeks to add charges for drivers who injure or kill road workers, passed the House last week with broad support and are bound for the Senate.
The House Committee on Judiciary is expected to continue its consideration of House Bill 1521, which would create a criminal penalty for disarming a law enforcement officer, after the Legislature returns from its spring break March 27.
By creating new charges that prosecutors could use alongside existing penalties, sponsors said their bills would help deter people from harming officials. In some instances, however, lawmakers have expressed concerns about singling out certain groups for special protection under the law and placing additional charges on defendants who may already be facing extended sentences.
Rep. RJ Hawk, who is sponsoring HB1496, told the House on Thursday that his bill would help protect athletic officials at the Little League, high school and collegiate levels. He said an official in Mountain Home was hospitalized after being struck by a fan at a basketball game roughly a year ago.
"These guys make $60 to $70 [a game]. It's a part-time job for most of them, and so we want to have some protections for them," said Hawk, R-Bryant.
While drafting the offenses included in the current version of the bill, Hawk said he worked closely with members of the House Committee on Judiciary.
Under the bill, a person who purposely "creates apprehension of imminent physical injury in an athletic contest official" would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
Someone who causes physical injury to an official with the purpose of causing physical injury would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $2,500.
A person who causes serious physical injury to an official with the intent to cause physical injury would be guilty of a Class C felony. Under state law, a Class C felony is punishable by between three and 10 years in prison.
The bill would apply a Class B felony if a person causes serious physical injury to an athletic official with the purpose of causing serious physical injury. A Class B felony conviction carries a sentence between five and 20 years.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, told the House the offense which would carry a Class B felony was in line with existing law while the offense that would carry a Class C felony represented an enhancement. The $2,500 fine associated with the misdemeanor penalty for acting with the purpose of causing physical injury also would be an enhancement, Gazaway said.
"I think it's a well-reasoned bill," he told House members.
To ensure fans are aware of the penalties, Hawk said the Arkansas Activities Association would inform each of its member schools of the measure. Hawk said he had already begun discussing the bill in Saline County and reached out to tournament directors around the state who said they would post notices of the new penalties at games.
Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, asked why people who abuse athletic officials should be subject to stiffer penalties than people who abuse any other person.
Hawk pointed to a state and nationwide shortage of athletic officials and said that adding protections could help with recruitment and retention. He noted 22 other states have enacted protections for athletic officials and said organizations representing officials in Arkansas had requested the legislation.
A survey conducted last year by the National Federation of State High School Associations indicated that roughly 50,000 people had stopped serving as high school athletic officials since the 2018-2019 season.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 75-4 with nine lawmakers voting present. The Senate has referred the bill to its Committee on Judiciary.
Ray, who voted against the bill, said during an interview Friday he generally opposes creating any enhanced penalties for special groups of people.
"As best as possible, the law ought to apply to folks equally," he said.
Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, who also cast a vote against the bill, said Friday she always wants to ensure the policy reasons for extra protections justify the enhanced penalties.
She noted that during the 2021 regular session lawmakers were unwilling to create enhanced penalties to protect minority and LGBTQ groups that have been frequent targets of hate crimes. Instead, legislators passed a bill that would allow prosecutors to seek longer prison terms for violent criminals who target anyone in a "recognizable and identifiable group."
The bill, signed into law by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, would require defendants convicted of such a crime to serve 80% of their sentences before being eligible for parole.
"If we're going to increase the number of special classes, I would say groups like athletic officials, while of course I don't want them to be victims of violence, certainly wouldn't be at the top of my list for people who deserve special protections," Clowney said. "I think that the protections that those people are provided under our current assault and battery laws are sufficient."
ROAD WORKER PROTECTIONS
Clowney and Ray voted in favor of HB1561, which would create penalties for drivers who commit a moving traffic violation and physically injure or kill a construction worker in a highway work zone.
In cases where a person performs a dangerous job on behalf of the government, Ray said he felt enhanced penalties are justified.
Clowney likewise said construction highway workers work in dangerous conditions and provide a service that the public couldn't live without or would be highly inconvenienced without.
When presenting HB1561 to the House, Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, said a constituent brought her the idea for the bill.
"Her father was just doing his job, working for a construction company building one of our highways," she said Wednesday. "He was off [Interstate] 630 when he was tragically hit by a distracted driver and killed."
Fite pointed to a national increase in roadway work zone accidents. Last year, state officials launched a campaign to step up enforcement of traffic violations in work zones following the death of two state Department of Transportation employees.
"These men and women are just doing their job. We should help them and protect them," Fite said.
Under the bill, a person who commits a moving traffic violation while driving through a highway work zone that results in a physical injury of a road worker would be guilty upon conviction of a Class A misdemeanor.
If the violation results in the death of a construction worker, the driver would be guilty of a Class C felony on conviction.
The bill would apply to construction personnel employed by the Arkansas Department of Transportation and local jurisdictions. It also would apply to contractors of the State Highway Commission, municipalities and counties.
Fite noted that other states including Texas and Oklahoma have similar laws. While driving through work zones in these states, Fite said drivers may encounter signs warning "don't hit our workers, don't pay $10,000."
"I want us to think once, twice, three times and slow down and not hit our workers," she said.
The bill passed with a vote of 96-0 and was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
DISARMING AN OFFICER
Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, presented HB1521 to the House Committee on Judiciary on Thursday, saying that unlike many neighboring states, Arkansas does not have a penalty in its criminal code for people who attempt to disarm a law enforcement officer.
Under current state law, a person who attempts to take an officer's firearm or other weapon may only be charged with resisting arrest, said Lt. Jim Scott of the North Little Rock Police Department, who spoke on the bill during the meeting.
Brandt Carmical, chief at Camp Robinson Police Department, spoke for the bill, saying officers need a more stringent charge than resisting arrest.
"Fight over a gun in the mud in a ditch, a lot of you all have probably never done that. I have," Carmical said. "After it's all said and done, the only charge you have is resisting arrest."
Under the bill, a person who purposely uses physical force to take a firearm, nightstick, stun gun, "personal protection chemical dispensing device" or any "other protective gear or weapon" and intends to cause physical injury to the law enforcement officer or another person would be guilty of a Class C felony upon conviction.
For the offense to apply, the officer would have to identify themselves as a law enforcement officer and would have to be wearing a distinctive uniform or badge.
Clowney questioned if the charge would apply to a person who knocked an officer's weapon out of their hand while trying to resist arrest. Scott said the offense would not apply in those cases and officers would be responsible for accurately articulating what happened during an instance of resisting arrest.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, noted the bill could lead to a person facing a felony in addition to charges associated with resisting arrest and whatever crime they were arrested for.
"Are we really gaining a lot by having a pretty significant additional felony put on there when you probably are already going to have a significant sentence that the accused would be facing?" he asked.
Scott said creating the charge would make it easier for courts to track instances where offenders attempt to disarm officers.
Jeff Rosenzweig, with the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, objected to a provision in the bill that would presume a person to "have had a conscious object to engage in conduct or cause a result with respect to a law enforcement officer."
Rosenzweig said the section was unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the state has the burden of proof and cannot presume a person's intent in criminal cases.
Wing told committee members the language in his bill matches that of existing laws in other states. Presuming a fix is needed, Wing agreed to pull the measure down and bring it back before the committee on March 28.
On Friday, Wing said in a written statement he was working with a couple of committee members "to make sure that they are happy with any amendments while keeping intact the full effort to protect our police officers. I'm grateful for their input."
Information for this article was contributed by Noel Oman and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.