Future Criminal Cases May Be Heavily Affected by This Change to Riot Law

One of the biggest questions in law is what constitutes a crime. Does a person break the law the second they start planning a violent act or do they only break the law when they actually commit the act? According to the Anti-Riot Act, any activity of promoting or inciting a riot is a criminal act. However, this controversial law has been under attack lately. A recent federal court ruling on the Anti-Riot Act's constitutionality may have surprising consequences.

Federal Court Takes Another Look at the Anti-Riot Act

For decades, the Anti-Riot Act has made it a felony to participate in, incite, promote, encourage, urge, or organize any sort of riot. This act has been used to prosecute a variety of rioters involved in both conservative and liberal movements. It got a lot of attention in the second half of 2020 when the George Floyd protests resulted in some rioting. The Capitol riots in January of 2021 also led to further examination of the act. There were multiple situations where people were arrested for speech linked to promoting, inciting, or organizing riots amid all the political unrest. After these controversial arrests, one district court ruled that the entire act was unconstitutional. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ended up examining this ruling to see if it was necessary to entirely dissolve the act.

Court Rules Act May Violate First Amendment Rights

The 2021 decision from the 9th Circuit Panel overruled a district court ruling that wanted to overturn the entire Act for violating Constitutional rights. The federal court instead confirmed that most of the act was Constitutional and would remain in effect. However, the federal court's decision upholds the ruling that the Act's prohibition of organizing, promoting, encouraging, or urging a riot is unconstitutional. As the panel explained in their ruling, they believe it would violate First Amendment rights to criminalize mere discussion of rioting. The court holds that it is people's right to discuss the concept of rioting as long as they do not actually riot or take steps to incite a riot. Especially when the line between protesting and rioting is so thin, the court feels it would be overreaching to penalize those who may just be trying to meet up for a protest or rally.

The New Ruling Is Already Affecting Criminal Cases

The recent federal court ruling is already having a big impact on some criminal cases. When the district court tried to entirely overturn the Anti-Riot Act, there were several people awaiting trial. Though they had hoped their cases would be thrown out, it appears they will face trial after all. In the case of white supremacists members of the Rise Above Movement, the accused will no longer be charged for merely discussing going to an area that later turned into a riot. However, they can still be charged for travelling to an area where they engaged in rioting.

What This Means for Future Cases

Ultimately, this ruling may have a big impact on how riots are handled. With many upcoming cases involved in the Capitol rioting of January, the Anti-Riot Act is sure to be mentioned a lot. The federal court's ruling may mean that people will not be charged simply for traveling to Washington D.C. with plans to riot. Those who used social media to encourage or suggest rioting may not face charges either. However, this does not mean people will be able to entirely avoid punishment for actual rioting. The new ruling does uphold that rioting itself is illegal. Furthermore, the fact that people damaged federal property and attacked federal agents may result in other charges as well. Even after the criminal cases from the Capitol rioting are over, this ruling may have far reaching effects on how future protests and riots are prosecuted.

As you can see, federal laws around rioting remain fairly complex. There can be quite a few disagreements about what counts as rioting and what sort of riot-adjacent activities should be criminalized. While the new ruling clears some things up, there may still be more debates about the controversial Anti-Riot Act in the future.

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