The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 31, 2021 4:30 pm

House panel takes stand against destruction to public monuments

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – State lawmakers are taking a stand against destruction or vandalism to public monuments or statues – increasing the criminal penalty and taking money from cities or other units of government that fail to protect the memorials.

The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee significantly amended a bill Wednesday and then passed it 9-3, with Democrats opposed.

The move comes after several monuments and memorials were damaged – or even torn down – during protests and riots last year. In Fort Wayne, messages saying "Quit pigs" and "BLM" were spray painted on the Police and Firefighters Memorial.

Senate Bill 187 originally included a state policy protecting monuments, memorials and statutes but that language was removed.

Instead, the bill does two major things.

It elevates the crime of rioting to a Level 6 Felony if it causes serious bodily injury or damage of at least $750. It would rise to a Level 5 Felony if catastrophic injury or death or damage of $50,000 or more.

Existing law requires an unlawful assembly of five people or more for the crime of rioting.

Current prosecutions of this type of destructive activity fall under the criminal mischief law, which covers damage to all property – whether a monument or a bank.

Under that existing law – it is a misdemeanor if the cost of the damage is between $750 and $50,000.

So, if one person sprays graffiti on a monument causing $5,000 in damage, they would be charged with misdemeanor criminal mischief.

But if a person, alongside four friends, sprays graffiti on a monument causing $5,000 in damage, they could all be charged with felony rioting under the bill.

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, sponsor of the bill, said he doesn’t think it is uneven justice under the law. He said rioting is higher because when you expand illegal activity into a group of people the situation becomes more dangerous.

The bill also says the Indiana State Police must prioritize the investigation and prosecution of persons who destroy, damage, vandalize, or desecrate a monument, memorial, or statue. And the state police are required to assist local cities, towns or counties in the investigation and prosecution of these acts.

And if a local unit of government fails to protect the monument, then discretionary state funding can be withheld.

Bernice Corley of the Indiana Public Defender Council said several state laws already adequately cover destruction of property such as monuments. And she said schools, cities and towns could lose money depending on how the statute is interpreted.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said there is too much vagueness in the bill.

"I think we are misplacing our priorities," he said. "Other crimes or pressing matters must go to the end of the line…I just think it’s not prudent to do this. I think it’s going to create more problems that we imagine."

He voted against the bill, which now moves to the full House.

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