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House panel advances bill requiring 25-foot distance from police officers

by Minden Press-Herald

By Madison Maronge | LSU Manship School News Service

A House committee moved forward with a bill Tuesday that would criminalize coming within 25 feet of an on-duty police officer if ordered to halt by the officer.

Penalties for violations could include a jail term of up to 60 days and a fine of $500. The bill, HB173, has been sent to the full House for consideration.

Gov. Jeff Landry’s office supported the bill, whereas Gov. John Bel Edwards previously vetoed a similar bill.

The bill is one of several that Republican leaders have aimed to pass again now that a Republican is governor. 

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice also advanced a bill Tuesday that would prohibit solicitation on certain highways and streets to deter panhandling. 

Supporters of the police bill said they want officers to be able to carry out their responsibilities safely, 25 feet away from possible harm during an arrest or altercation. 

The author of this bill, Rep. Bryan Fontenot R-Thibodaux, went so far as to bring out a tape measure to emphasize the distance.

“We’re not trying to read the officer’s name on his uniform as much as we are trying to articulate his actions and are his actions, when we’re videoing him, appropriate with his code of conduct and within his use of force,” Fontenot said. “You can see, in 25 feet, that clearly can be picked up on any good video surveillance or cell phone.”

This bill has received support from individuals in several policing institutions.

Opponents brought up situations such as police brutality, car accidents and legal occurrences inside the home that would could come under the bill and could make it unjust.

Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, a civil rights group, recognized that there could be punishment for actual interference. But people at the scene should not be prosecuted because, he said, referring to police, “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be afraid of people watching.” 

Terry Landry Jr., policy director of the Southern Policy Law Center, said the bill was unnecessary.

“We’re creating a problem where one does not exist,” Landry said. “We’re creating additional crime where we have enough crime already on the books in Louisiana.” 

Landry asked: “What if I am 26 feet away? 24 and a half?”

The 25-foot distance was based on the existing 21-foot rule in police training, which is the minimum amount of distance that officers can effectively pull their weapons on a citizen charging them with an edged weapon.

The anti-panhandling measure, House Bill 97, was authored by Rep. Dixon McMakin, R-Baton Rouge.

It prohibits solicitation on certain types of highways and streets, adding to existing panhandling laws.

McMakin said it is too dangerous for people to be hanging out near highways.

He said that “18.5% to 22% of fatal and severe pedestrian crashes involve a pedestrian crossing, entering a road or walking in rural roadways.” He said Louisiana had the second-highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country in 2021 and the fourth-highest rate in 2022. 

Sarah Whittington, attorney at the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, testified against the bill, saying it would affect First Amendment rights and is unnecessary at the state level. She maintained that it would be better to handle the problem at the municipal level.

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