By Christopher Zoukis
With surprisingly little notice, on May 16 by a huge margin, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protect and Serve Act (H.R. 5698), which would create new federal penalties for anyone who knowingly causes “serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer, or attempts to do so.” The measure cleared on a 382-35 vote, with ten members not voting. The “nay” votes came from 24 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
The measure had cleared the House Judiciary Committee by voice vote a week earlier, without a hearing being held (though panel leaders note hearings were held last year on violence targeted at police).
The House took up the bill during National Police Week when representatives of law enforcement groups visit Washington, D.C. and honor their fallen colleagues on Peace Officers Memorial Day. The bill’s lead sponsors in the House were Reps. Rutherford (R-FL), a former Jacksonville sheriff, and Val Demings (D-FL), a former Orlando police chief.
The bill’s backers argue it is needed to deter ambush-style attacks on law enforcers. They cite Department of Justice statistics showing over 200 ambush attacks on law enforcers in 2013 alone; a decade-high 21 were fatally shot in 2016, of whom 12 were sitting in a patrol car, not responding to a call. In the first third of this year, 87 law enforcement officers have been shot, 28 fatally.
The “Protect and Serve Act” would add provisions to the federal criminal code authorizing federal prosecution of persons who intentionally assault and cause serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer (federal, state or local, although if non-federal, there must be a link to interstate commerce.) Actual or attempted assaults could bring up to 10 years’ imprisonment; a fatal attack could bring a life sentence.
Federal prosecution for injuring a non-federal officer also requires the U.S. attorney general’s certification the state lacks jurisdiction or has requested federal action, or that a state-obtained verdict or sentence fails to protect the federal interest in protecting public safety, or federal prosecution is in the public interest and needed for substantial justice.
The bill was amended during the hour of floor debate to make clear the new penalties would not apply to those who unintentionally injure law enforcers, and that corrections officers are included within its definition of “law enforcement officer.”
A coalition of over two dozen civil rights, religious and civil liberties group opposed the bill, arguing it’s unneeded since the laws of every state provide more significant penalties for attacks on law enforcers and in some cases first responders. (Many of the groups also opposed some of those measures, especially so-called “Blue Lives Matter” measures resembling similar legislation already passed in several states.)
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, called it “an empty gesture during Police Week,” and argued Congress should instead work on ways to fix what he called the nationwide “well-documented unconstitutional policing practices in communities of color.” Even so, Nadler voted for the bill, saying committee Republican leaders had committed to working together on police accountability legislation.
A Senate companion measure (S. 2794), introduced by the longest-serving Senate Republican Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), has not yet seen action.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.