FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- A Kentucky House of Representatives committee passed a controversial bill Wednesday that would allow the state's attorney general, instead of local prosecutors, to charge protesters.
House Bill 479, which was approved 11-5 by the House Judiciary Committee, includes a section focusing on specific charges that have been used against protesters, including some arrested this summer at Attorney General Daniel Cameron's home.
"There is no intent to cause harm to anyone but to simply see that our laws that we put in our statutes in Kentucky are enforced," said Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, the bill's sponsor. The purpose of the bill is "not to stifle someone's civil rights to peacefully protest."
Blanton testified the aim of the bill is to grant the attorney general the ability to charge and prosecute more crimes than currently permissible.
However, opponents say a particular section of the bill unfairly targets protesters and appears to be a response to widespread protests last year following the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
Some legislators said they were "appalled" by the bill, calling it an attack on free speech.
Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, said "anybody that claims to care about individual liberty needs to be a no vote.
"... It's hard to see this as anything other than targeting people who are engaged in the vital work of First Amendment right to assemble and protest."
Prominent Louisville defense attorney Ted Shouse argued the bill focuses on charges related to protesting while excluding other more serious charges.
"This section of the bill would allow the attorney general to swoop in and prosecute on his own initiative disorderly conduct, disrupting a highway, failure to disperse (cases)," said Shouse, who spoke on behalf of the ACLU of Kentucky. "This is a blanket grant of absolute authority for the attorney general."
Over the summer, dozens of protesters who were arrested and charged with crimes during racial justice demonstrations in Louisville had charges dropped by local prosecutors.
In July, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell decided to drop felony charges against dozens of protesters who were arrested at Cameron's home.
In theory, the bill would allow Cameron to charge those people again.
Cameron's spokeswoman, Elizabeth Kuhn, said in an email that Cameron "respected Mike O’Connell’s decision to drop the felony charges against those who protested at his home" and "he would not seek to have those charges reinstated."
And Blanton argued that Cameron "is not going to be there forever. This is for every attorney general."
He said the purpose of the bill is to help local prosecutors who, for whatever reason, can't or don't prosecute these types of cases.
In a statement, O'Connell said he is "absolutely opposed" to the section of the bill allowing the attorney general's office to prosecute local cases involving protest-related crimes.
"The people of Jefferson County elected me to be their County Attorney, not an individual or handful of legislators, "O'Connell said. "I don't shy away from the job. Cases come to our office and we review them, we put in the work. ... It is important that prosecutors have this discretion to fulfill our role as ministers of justice-to try to do the next right thing-and then ultimately be accountable to our local communities."
Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, a member of the Judiciary Committee, was arrested in September near the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and First Unitarian Church at the intersection of South Fourth and York streets.
The Louisville Metro Police Department accused Scott of being a part of a large group that wouldn't disperse. The charges against her were dropped in November.
She was one of five legislators to vote against the bill. There was an unsuccessful attempt to strike out the parts of the bill dealing with protesters.
"In the midst of this body claiming that it wants to address issues of racial justice and trauma — but this bill being the exact opposite of that and an attorney general that has done nothing but contribute to conflict across the commonwealth and instead should be focusing on healing — I will be voting no," Scott said.
Amy Burke, an assistant attorney general in charge of criminal prosecutions, told the committee her office did not ask for this specific section to be included in the bill. She also said her office has no intention of re-charging and prosecuting Scott. Instead, Burke said the provision would allow easier prosecution of cases that cross jurisdictional boundaries.
She also said the office has attorneys specializing in constitutional law who could partner with and assist local prosecutors.
"If it were to occur, (local prosecutors) may feel they are in a stuck in the mud situation where they don't have a whole lot of options," Blanton added.
Blanton also said he believed Scott should have never been charged.
In his statement, O'Connell said his office "reviewed the facts and evidence" for all protest-related arrests.
"We moved to dismiss cases when there was no evidence of violence, property damage or significant hindrance of roadways and bridges," he wrote." "We moved forward on other cases."
The bill will now be taken up by the full House of Representatives at a later date.
Meanwhile, Scott's Democratic colleagues aggressively rebuked the bill.
"This conversation has been deeply disturbing," said Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, D-Louisville. "We're told all the time that you have to have thick skin to be here and you do, but we're also told when you have to thick skin and show up here, it's not personal. We are hearing testimony that affects one of our colleagues. I am appalled. This is so deeply disturbing that we're treating one of our colleagues this way."
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