A bill that would require people to stay at least 25 feet away from law enforcement officers — when ordered — while they are engaged in their official duties moved one step closer to becoming law Tuesday (May 30) after it won approval from a Senate committee in the Louisiana Legislature.

The controversial proposal has already passed the state House and now only has two hurdles left to clear: passage by the full Senate and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ signature.

State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, who authored the bill with backing from the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police said there is a “genuine and sincere concern and fear” among officers that people will attempt to harm them while they are investigating crimes.

“This bill simply seeks to give that police officer some safe space in which to operate and to do his job, and thus lower the potential for physical contact,” Johnson said. “It’s very simple.”

Opponents warned committee members that Johnson’s bill was unconstitutional and would undoubtedly draw legal challenges. Stephanie Willis, policy strategist for the ACLU of Louisiana, said House Bill 85 prevents the public from adequately observing law enforcement – a violation of the First Amendment — and is overly vague – which violates the 14th Amendment. 

Civil rights advocates have also criticized the bill as an attempt to stifle citizens from recording video and audio of law enforcement officers on the job — particularly when they are engaged in potential misconduct — a right that has been affirmed by federal courts across the country and one that is explicitly guaranteed in the New Orleans Police Department’s long-running federal consent decree. Johnson has denied that the bill targets citizen recordings, saying the proposed buffer wouldn’t prevent anyone from filming police. 

On Tuesday, Willis pointed out that it is already illegal in Louisiana to interfere with law enforcement.

“There’s no reason for us to bring in laws that we know on its face is going to have issues,” Willis said. “That really makes no sense.”

The bill, which is similar to a recently passed Indiana state law, states that “no person shall knowingly or intentionally approach within 25 feet of a law enforcement officer who is lawfully engaged in the execution of his official duties after the officer has ordered the person to stop approaching.

Violating the zone of protection would be a misdemeanor, and violators could be fined $500, be sentenced to 60 days in jail or both. 

The bill passed the Senate Committee on Judiciary C by a 4-2 vote with Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, and Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, in opposition. It previously passed the House by a vote of 67-23.

Both Barrow and Carter expressed concerns that the bill would lead to people unreasonably being charged with a crime. Barrow pressed Johnson on how it would affect those with disabilities, such as hearing loss or autism, that could prevent them from understanding an officer’s command. Carter made the point that no one knows precisely how far 25 feet is and that someone 28 feet away could be falsely ticketed. Proving otherwise would be difficult if not impossible, he said.

“I think you have a lot of constitutional problems with this,” Carter said. “I think you’re going to have an enforcement problem. But I just simply think that it’s government overreach.”

Johnson admitted that some people might be wrongfully ticketed but said the protection of law enforcement should be the primary concern.  

“You do have to put some element of trust in our police officers to not use this in an unreasonable manner,” Johnson said. “I’m not seeing that as a significant problem.”

Meg Garvey, president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, pounced on Johnson’s response.

“This is now going to be a part of the record when there are inevitable lawsuits,” Garvey said. “He admitted that people are going to get scooped up in this that were not intended and were not contemplated and are not the problem that the bill believes it’s trying to solve.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...