By Guy Page
A new clause in the Senate ‘criminal threatening’ bill would levy prison sentences of up to three years to store customers who make “true threats” after being asked to wear a mask, the Senate Judiciary Committee learned Thursday.
The addition to S.265 requested by Chair Richard Sears (D-Bennington) also would cover non-compliance threats by Slate Ridge, the firearms training facility, legislative counsel lawyer Ben Novogroski told the committee. In fact, it would cover true threats against someone attempting to comply with any state law, rule or order.
The new language reads: “ A person who violates [this law] with the intent to impede, intimidate, interfere or prevent a person from complying with state laws or rules state court or administrative orders or state executive orders shall be imprisoned not more than three years or find not more than five thousand dollars or both.”
Compared to earlier drafts of the bill, this draft enlarges the scope of illegal behavior but reduces the maximum prison sentence from five years to three. The bill already included state officials, including legislators, as reported in Vermont Daily Chronicle.
Here’s the transcript from the YouTube video, edited for brevity:
Ben Novogroski, Legislative Council lawyer (one minute, 50 second mark): “What we’ve done is update a few sections to cover situations that Sen. Sears had indicated – for violations of public health orders or a situation potentially like Slate Ridge.
“What this subsection contemplates is if an individual or business owner is put, if a true threat is levied against them for their compliance with say a masked mandate, or if there is a court order to stay away or to cease an activity and there are threats that are made for complying with that order, this would criminalize the threat to try and impede or intimidate the person from complying with one of those orders. Based on the community discussion, the penalty would be three years or a fine of not more than five thousand dollars, or both.”
Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) asked if it would cover an argument between a customer and a store owner or employee about wearing a mask.
Novogroski: “Our First Amendment protections really do protect debate and some pretty crude language. But if it rose to the level of a true threat where someone really feared for their life, or serious bodily injury, then this is something that could fall under this section.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) wondered what constitutes a true threat: “What I struggle with is where the line of demarcation between hyperbole, and the decision of an individual on the receiving end of that hyperbole, now becomes the basic building blocks of a felony charge. I’m running into my own observation of what the first amendment is supposed to be about, trying to balance that, and I’m struggling with this bill as a result of that.”
However, Benning added he is comfortable moving towards the heightened standard of protection given threatened federal judges and other federal officials.
The committee also discussed reducing the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. The bill will be discussed, and possibly voted on, on Tuesday.
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.