Violent and unlawful acts aimed at influencing public policy could be prosecuted as “domestic terrorism” under legislation endorsed Thursday by the Montana Senate.
Senators voted 35-14 in favor of the bill, which specifies a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. A final Senate vote, yet to come, will send the bill to the House.
Senate Bill 168 was introduced by Sen. Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, at the request of the Montana County Attorneys Association. Doherty said prosecutors felt they needed a better tool to use in prosecuting crimes such as those of some militia supporters in Ravalli County and the anti-government freemen in Garfield County.
The Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both groups said it might infringe on legitimate political protest.
Doherty told the Senate that the law would be applied carefully and that any act prosecuted would have to be violent, already unlawful under existing law, and aimed at influencing the policy or conduct of the state or a political subdivision.
The law would not bar “getting in your face in a very aggressive way” as some protesters might do, Doherty said.
Sen. Ric Holden, R-Glendive, was among those voting against the bill, arguing that it covers crimes that already can be prosecuted under existing law.
“I like it because it calls a spade a spade. Let’s call them (domestic terrorists) what they are,” said Sen. Al Bishop, R-Billings, who voted in favor.
The Senate earlier passed a companion bill by Doherty, SB178, aimed at correcting possible constitutional defects in the state’s criminal syndicalism law.
Senate Bill 178 renames the offense “criminal incitement.” It is defined as advocating the commission of a criminal offense, if the advocacy is directed toward “inciting or producing imminent unlawful action” and if it is likely to incite or produce such unlawful action.
Doherty said the revisions were intended in part to ensure that the law does not interfere with the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly.
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