A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Should Threats Against Legislators Have Stricter Penalites?

Some wonder why Legislators' lives deemed more worthy than the lives of everyone else

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A bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature would outlaw death threats against public officials or their immediate family members. But even before it was formally introduced, questions arose: Why just public officials? Why not everyone?

Public officials are defined in Senate Bill 943 as the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, directors of state executive branch principal departments, members of the state Legislature, and justices and judges of the state judiciary. People elected or appointed to these posts but not yet serving are included as well.

Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, the bill sponsor, defends limiting the scope of the bill to public officials. He argues that threatening a public official could potentially have a wider impact than making such threats against other individuals.

“The way I see it, when these kinds of threats take place it potentially impacts the democratic process,” he said. “We're elected to represent the people of our districts. Death threats — maybe not so much against the officials themselves as against their family members — could cause someone to alter how they vote on legislation or how they perform other duties.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, said it's ironic that arguments are being made to limit the scope of the legislation to just public officials.

“I believe there's good intent behind the bill,” Sen. Bieda said. “I plan on keeping an open mind as this goes through the committee process. That said; I do think it's little bit ironic that some of the Republican Senators who spoke out against enumerating specific individuals in the anti-bullying bill, now seem to be enumerating who would be covered in this bill.”

Last year, Sen. Bieda offered an amendment to anti-bullying legislation that would have specifically mentioned gay and transgendered students when the measure moved through the Senate. Republicans voted down the amendment, arguing that the anti-bullying legislation should cover all students and specific types of students should not be singled out.

Anti-bullying legislation was eventually passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. The law requires school districts to adopt policies that ban all bullying against all students for any reason.

Sen. Bieda said one of the things he'll be watching if the death-threat legislation moves forward, is whether statutes already exist that would cover such situations.

Sen. Booher said there is no state law that prohibits someone from directing death threats to public officials. The issue came to light for him last year after someone made death threats to him and other officials after contentious debate about labor legislation.

“After the individual who had made the threats was located, law enforcement officials said there was no law against making these threats under which they could prosecute,” Sen. Booher said. “That's the reason I believe this legislation is needed. There is a federal law that covers officials at that level. Why shouldn't we have one that covers state officials?”

Senate Bill 943 only pertains to threats made “with the intent of retaliating for carrying out the duties of his or her public office.”

Still, questions about its necessity persist. What about people holding other positions of responsibility in the public and private sectors, such as bankers, financial advisers and others?

Senate Bill 943 is not specifically limited to death threats. Threat is defined in the legislation as “any form of communication that would place the public official or his or her immediate family in reasonable apprehension of immediate or future bodily harm."

The definition of “immediate family” includes: a spouse, parent, sibling, child, grandchild, or another person for whom the public official is considered the legal parent, or any other individual living in the public official's household and related to him or her by blood or marriage.

A first offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment of not more than one year or a fine of not more than $1,000, or both. A second (or subsequent) offense would be a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine of not more than $5,000, or both.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Government Operations Committee.

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See also:

Mandating 'Good Samaritans'

Grab Bag Government