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3 bills inspired by Dakota Access protests pass ND Senate

Protestors shout from on top of a pickup truck blocking North Dakota Hwy. 1806 on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, north of Cannon Ball. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Three bills introduced in response to Dakota Access Pipeline protests moved a step closer to becoming law Thursday, Feb. 16.

The North Dakota Senate approved three bills, already approved by House lawmakers and "fast-tracked" for consideration, that relate to penalties for riot offenses, wearing a mask while committing a crime and criminal trespass citations.

House Bill 1426, which passed Thursday with a 35-10 vote, increases penalties for riot offenses. Crimes such as inciting a riot involving 100 or more people or providing weapons for a riot will increase from a Class C felony to a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine.

Engaging in a riot or failing to disperse when ordered by police would increase from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine.

About 700 arrests have been made during Dakota Access protests since August, including some individuals who were arrested more than once. The charge of engaging in a riot has been used more than 360 times during the pipeline protests, according to information provided by the Morton County Sheriff's Department.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged support for the bill and emphasized it does not make participating in a protest a crime.

"I have no doubt that the vast majority of the people at the DAPL protest are peaceful," Armstrong said. "But there is a strong minority and contingent that has not always acted peacefully and our laws have proven to be inadequate down there in regards to felony prosecution."

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, argued against the bills, saying they were an overreaction to the protests.

"Most of the people that have been involved in the activities in Morton County are actually peace-loving people," said Mathern, adding they are trying to get a message across about protecting the environment, their way of life and constitutional rights.

House Bill 1304, which makes it a Class A misdemeanor to wear a mask to conceal your identity while committing a crime or fleeing from a crime, passed with a 33-12 vote.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said some involved with pipeline protests have worn masks to conceal their identities to avoid being charged with a crime.

"We all have a right to free speech ... but we do not have a right to evade prosecution of a crime," Myrdal said.

Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, opposed the bill, calling it "extremely subjective."

"Sometimes you get bills that your gut just says, 'I don't like this bill, this is not a fair bill, we don't need this bill,'" Nelson said.

Senators also voted 43-2 in favor of House Bill 1293, which gives law enforcement the option of issuing a noncriminal citation and $250 fine for some trespassing offenses.

All of the bills have emergency clauses, meaning they would take effect immediately if signed by Gov. Doug Burgum.

Two of the three bills were amended slightly since the House approved them, and it was not immediately clear how quickly Burgum would receive them for consideration.

The Senate has not yet considered House Bill 1193, which would make it a Class C felony to cause economic harm of more than $1,000 while committing a misdemeanor offense. The bill was introduced in response to protesters who attached themselves to equipment to stall construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.