Update, 6:15 p.m., Correction appended
Philly protesters could soon be forced to pay police overtime costs and other fees associated with their rallies because of a new bill circulating in Harrisburg.
If the bill passes, local authorities would essentially have greater leeway in seeking restitution fees from convicted protesters for costs incurred during a protest. That means protesters convicted of a misdemeanor or felony could be on the hook for not just individual damages directly related to them but other damages related to the event and more nebulous costs like police overtime.
Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the bill infringes upon people’s constitutional rights of assembly and due process and could have a negative effect on protester turnout. The bill reads, in part:
“A person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense. In addition to any other right of action and any other remedy provided by law, a State agency or political subdivision that incurs costs in responding to a demonstration may bring an action against a person described in section 4 to recover the response costs and related legal, administrative and court expenses. All costs owed may be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
“It’s the chilling effect that we’re concerned about,” Randol said.
Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for District Attorney and an attorney who has represented dozens of protesters, said in a statement, “Of all the activities to single out, who would pick out speech and protest for extraordinary punishment?… It’s what this country was built on. This sort of legislation has no place in our democracy.”
Republican DA candidate Beth Grossman also viewed the bill with skepticism, questioning which agency would seek these fees and how they could be assigned to individual convicted protesters.
“Are you going to seek the entire amount against one person?” Grossman said. “I see a lot of challenges and problems down the line for that.”
The bill was brought forth by Republican Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster County and six other Republicans, and has been referred to the State Government committee. Though its main purview is ostensibly Martin’s district, which faces protests related to oil and gas pipelines, it would have wide-ranging implications that could certainly affect Philadelphia. The last couple of years, the city has become a hotbed for protests, from rallies at the DNC to those pushing back against President Donald Trump.
Just last week, an estimated 1,000 people turned out for a “Philly is Charlottesville” rally that also touched on the police killing of black resident David Jones. And yesterday a smaller group gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza to protest the Frank Rizzo statue.
These protests haven’t been cheap. According to the Mayor’s Office, police overtime costs associated with these rallies in Fiscal Year 2017 totaled $5.2 million.
Some of Philly’s top protest leaders are concerned about the bill. Erica Mines, who is involved with Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, called it “suppression of people’s voices.” But she expected the regulations, if passed, to embolden protesters. In the last couple years, she said, no protesters involved with REAL Justice who’d been arrested had actually been convicted.
“I think we’re 23-0,” Mines said. “That’s because we are within our legal rights.”
Arrests, much less convictions, have been minimal during major rallies in Philadelphia. When the DNC was in town last year, the Secret Service made 11 arrests. Though the Philadelphia Police Department could not immediately provide data on total protest arrests made this year, news reports indicate several people have been arrested for minor injuries caused against police officers in various other protests.
Daniel Curcio, founder and co-national organizer of The Equality Coalition, said his organization always coordinates with officials while planning rallies. Lately, the group has been switching from typical protests to what Curcio considers “demonstrations.” On Oct. 11, for instance, The Equality Coalition is hosting an event where people will gather and discuss their coming-out stories.
But, he admitted, some of those decisions aren’t made by choice. They’re spurred by what he considers unconstitutional proposals from the state legislature and the worry they’ll be burdened by “unjust punishments or fees.”
“They’re forcing us little by little not to assemble,” Curcio said. “That’s basically what’s going on.”