Since its passage in the wake of 9/11, the Patriot Act has become a symbol to civil liberties activists for any law which invades personal freedoms in the name of preventing terrorism. But a new law which went into effect on July 1 has Georgia’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union saying it’s even broader than the Patriot Act.
“Anything which involves acts dangerous to human life, you can be charged and held under the Patriot Act. This goes further,” said ACLU policy counsel Christopher Bruce, who testified against the law when it was in committee. “And the key right here is critical infrastructure. Even in the Patriot Act, passed after 9/11, they didn’t include that. But Georgia did.”
The law is called the “Protect Georgia Act.” It expands the state’s definition of domestic terrorism to include damaging “critical infrastructure” as a form of recognized terrorism. The law also adds mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years in prison.
Critical infrastructure includes public transportation, water supply sources, the power grid and telecommunications technology, among other things. Felony-level damage to any of this infrastructure that’s intended to intimidate the public or coerce the government can be considered domestic terrorism. This is similar to federal legal definitions.
Unlike federal law, though, Georgia state law broadens domestic terrorism to include cases where no one is physically harmed, but which cause “major economic loss” to critical infrastructure facilities. That’s a problem to Asma Elhuni, the community outreach director of the Center for American Islamic Relations’ Georgia Branch and an intern with Rep. Brenda Lopez (D-Norcross). “That really could mean that people can be convicted of domestic terrorism even if they’ve literally caused no one any harm,” Elhuni said.
She’s concerned that the bill seems to target common tactics used by demonstrators. If protesters were to block a highway and damage a police car, for instance, Elhuni fears that might be considered damaging critical infrastructure and causing economic loss. That means activists could be prosecuted as terrorists. “If that causes economic loss, then people can easily fit this definition. It’s so broad that it’s really left to interpretation.”
She’s also concerned about a section of the law which calls for Georgia peace officers to receive new trainings on identifying and reporting domestic terrorism. Elhuni thinks this could lead to racial or religious profiling. Brad McKinney of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center wrote in an email that law enforcement officers are trained to not make decisions based on an individual’s identity. “The focus is on behaviors and never profiling,” he wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Hunter Hill (R-District 6), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, also disputes these concerns. He points to a provision in the law saying that it should not be interpreted as infringing on constitutionally protected speech. “If one loves America and traditional American values, and God and country, I don’t think they would be at all in violation of anything that we passed in Senate Bill 1. That would be odd to me, if somebody would find the passing of this bill contradictory to their religion at all.”
But Bruce, the ACLU policy counsel, says that this provision doesn’t go far enough. “The question is ‘who has the discretion of charging or saying that this is constitutionally protected speech or assembly?’” Bruce said.
The bill also states that domestic terrorism can only apply to felony-level violations. Unlawful protest and vandalism, for example, are misdemeanors, so they should not qualify for terrorism charges. Property damage in excess of $500, however, is considered a felony in some contexts. Thus, damage to a police vehicle or physical damage to a highway in excess of $500 could lead to felony charges. It remains to be seen whether the lost economic activity from a blocked roadway might be interpreted as property damage under those laws.
The bill’s language was originally proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert as part of his efforts to make a new Georgia Department of Homeland Security. Cowsert could not be reached for comment by press time. That proposal didn’t pass the House, but Cowsert attached much of the same language to an unrelated House bill which would have established a statewide database of immigrants and foreign nationals with felonies.
Bruce also takes issue with the method by which the law was enacted. “Senate Bill 1 was voted down twice. For it to come up in House Bill 452 during a conference session -- it boggles my mind how they could pass something that’s already been voted down twice by the legislature. It shouldn’t be here at all.”
The law which passed “in no way limited the rights of lawful protest or freedom of speech,” Cowsert told the Senate.
There’s one key difference between Cowsert’s initial language and the final language in the law: an amendment allows the courts to bypass the mandatory minimums if both the defendant and prosecutor agree to an alternate sentence. House Majority Whip Christian Coomer, who proposed the amendment, called it “the safety valve to the mandatory minimum requirements” on the House floor.
“This is an iteration that began as Senate Bill 1, but is very different from Senate Bill 1 today,” Coomer said.