A proposed Indiana bill would require bystanders observing police interactions to stay a set distance away.
House Bill 1186, authored by Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-District 76, would make it a Class C misdemeanor for a person to approach a law enforcement officer within 25 feet after being told to keep away.
A Class C misdemeanor is punishable by up to 60 days in jail and carries a fine of up to $500. It is the lowest-level crime charge in Indiana.
The bill passed all three readings in the House and was referred to the Senate on Feb. 15. If the bill passes the next three readings in the Senate, it will go to the governor for review.
It is already a crime under Indiana code for a person to interfere with an arrest. Indiana code 34-44.1-4-5 states a person who knowingly refuses to leave an emergency incident area immediately after being asked by a firefighter or law enforcement officer commits a Class A misdemeanor.
"This expectation of giving law enforcement officers space while they conduct business is nothing new," Hannah Skibba, IU police department public information officer, said. "I don't think that our community is going to see a change in how we conduct business or how they're treated."
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Skibba said having the bill would not only give police more room but also keep community members at a safe distance from potentially-dangerous situations.
While there is no specific language within the bill about how the law would be enforced, officers would give bystanders instructions, Skibba said, such as pointing them to stand near a landmark or object that is an appropriate distance away from a scene.
"Obviously we don't carry around tape measures," Skibba said. "We can kind of eyeball what 25 feet would be."
Under the bill, officers would be required to advise a person to move before the person can officially commit a crime, Skibba said.
As long as people stay 25 feet away, they will still be permitted to videotape police interactions, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has held is a First Amendment right.
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Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Phil Parker said the bill has the potential to help keep community members safe.
“If you’re in a situation and there are citizens too close to that, and it evolves quickly, the officer not only has to worry about the person that is involved and in contact, but then he’s got to worry about those folks that are around him,” Parker said.
Parker said if the bill passes, Monroe County officers will receive information and training to ensure the law is enforced properly and officers do not make people move back farther than 25 feet.
“The spirit of the law is, ‘let’s keep everybody safe,’” he said. “If you as an officer get irritated for any reason, it’s not a pass for you as an officer to try and deny someone their constitutional right.’”
Zach Stock, who serves as legislative counsel at the Indiana Public Defender Council, said he is opposed to the bill, partly because he does not approve of arresting people who overstep the boundaries.
"We [police] have no interest in making what is already an inherently dangerous situation more dangerous," he said. "If they were going to do something like this with a very set barrier, then maybe they should consider it some type of infraction, as opposed to a criminal penalty."
Stock said the bill is not necessary because there are already laws in place that penalize encroaching on a crime scene, which could mean more charges stacked against them. Stock said he believes the intentions of the bill are good, but he worries police will be inconsistent in their enforcement of the bill or that the perimeter in which observers are allowed to stand will keep expanding farther back, forcing them away.
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India Thusi, a professor of law at the Maurer School of Law, said the bill is concerning to her because officers could abuse their power, she said, telling people to move farther away than the bill requires.
Thusi pointed to how the bill was introduced close to the recent death of Tyre Nichols. She said it could discourage citizens from recording police interactions, which she said is important when it comes to police accountability.
"These politicians know they're operating within a political context," she said. “What it seems to be suggesting is that, 'We're going to give more power to the police officers as opposed to giving more power to people who might want to see these officers held accountable when they act violently."