House Bill 181 or The First Responders Act of 2017, says anyone who assaults and inflicts serious bodily injury on a first responder — because they’re a first responder — will be convicted of a felony resulting in four to 25 months in prison. And anyone who assaults someone with a firearm because the person is a first responder will be convicted of a felony resulting in 10 to 41 months in prison.
The sponsors on the bill are N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Haywood, Rep. Carl Ford, R-Cabarrus, Rep. Larry Potts, R-Davidson and Rep. James Boles, R-Moore.
None of the bill’s sponsors could be reached for comment.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel at the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, said these enhanced penalties seem to be warranted given the random assaults on law enforcement officers occurring across the country.
Caldwell said he thinks the bill will be beneficial but is not sure how much it will help.
“I don’t know if criminals who are assaulting our emergency personnel are thinking about the penalty at the time they do it,” he said.
“Maybe it will help some, but one thing it will do is it will give them longer prison sentences and get them off the street so they don’t assault anybody a second time.”
When an officer kills someone in the line of duty, Caldwell said the situation receives a lot of media coverage.
“But what the printed press and the electronic press don’t cover is the thousands of assaults that are committed on law enforcement officers every year,” he said.
But the bill has the potential to create an issue for people with disabilities or mental illnesses.
Rob Schofield, director of research at N.C. Policy Watch, said there are some circumstances in which someone suffering from a disability or mental illness could merely be acting as the illness affects them. They could perhaps act violently toward a law enforcement officer who is trying to escort them to a facility or take them to a safe place.
And situations in which law enforcement officers are lured somewhere with a falsely reported emergency and then shot at should be treated differently, he said.
“That’s obviously a very different situation and one we’d clearly wanna punish very severely,” Schofield said.
He said he thinks the bill is too broad.
“It’s one of those laws that may have some good intent but (legislators have) drafted it sort of too broadly, and it may capture some situations where we really don’t want to be sending people to prison,” Schofield said.
“I think that’s what it boils down to.”
Matthew Herr, an attorney and policy analyst for Disability Rights North Carolina, said the state should not be criminalizing people for seeking help for their conditions.
“If people are at risk for committing a hate crime when they seek help, when they’re having a behavioral health crisis, it disincentivizes them from seeking help in the first place,” he said.