House bill

Vagrancy becomes target of Oklahoma House bill

State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Felt, on Thursday turned his cockfighting bill, Senate Bill 1522, into a new law aimed at increasing penalties for loitering — a move that, according to opponents, could be used to criminalize peaceful protest. (Screenshot by Janice Francis-Smith)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A House bill once aimed at reducing penalties for cockfighting has been turned into a bill to increase penalties for vagrancy.

The Republican majority ignored concerns from the Democratic minority that language in the bill could be used to criminalize homelessness and lawful protest.

“I killed my (bill) chicken,” State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, told fellow lawmakers on Thursday as he introduced the latest version of Senate Bill 1522.

The measure had started the session as a wildlife bill before Humphrey changed language in committee a few weeks ago to resuscitate his cockfighting bill. Humphrey had sought to reduce penalties for cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor, but his original bill did not receive a hearing before a legislative deadline.

Instead, Humphrey amended SB 1522 to address penalties for cockfighting, and that version of the bill passed in committee. But the night before the measure was put to a vote by the entire state House of Representatives, Humphrey changed the language again, this time to deal with loitering.

The measure adds the word “loitering” to the law, prohibiting anyone “willfully encroaching” on publicly owned critical infrastructure. Vagrancy is added to the list of crimes punishable by a fine of $1,000 and/or six months in prison.

Humphrey’s modified language had also included “any public property the purpose of which is to ensure the health and welfare of the community”, as “essential infrastructure”.

That language could be used to criminalize anyone simply sitting in a public park, said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

Humphrey said the measure was intended to address situations where peaceful protest escalates into a security risk. The language is deliberately broad to address a wide variety of situations that can pose a security risk, Humphrey said, adding that he trusts law enforcement to make those calls as they see fit.

“We don’t define every situation, we give authority when they see a risk to eliminate that risk,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey noted instances of protesters blocking the entrance to a courthouse or sabotaging a pipeline. Virgin and other lawmakers noted that these actions are already prohibited by law and are specifically mentioned in other parts of the law.

Instead, the bill could be used by law enforcement to justify the evacuation of protesters awaiting a verdict outside a courthouse, lawmakers argued. State Rep. Trey Caldwell, R-Lawton, questioned whether the bill’s wording represents an infringement of First Amendment rights.

“I think this bill is a specific and direct attack on people who don’t feel seen and heard by their representation,” said state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City.

House Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, amended the amended bill to remove language that would have included public parks as critical infrastructure. But Echols and Humphrey refused to budge on the word “loitering” – even though neither offered a legal definition of the word.

“This bill is not about a word, it’s not about definitions of a word, this bill is about freedom,” Humphrey said. “And when we abuse freedom, we lose freedom. I want to see protests happen. I want to see the ability to stand up and say what you think is right.

“But when you start burning down entire cities, when you have $55 million in damage when you see tent cities being erected and people can’t get to the store and people can’t go about their daily lives , blocked from hospitals, those those kinds of things, so we can’t keep calling it a peaceful protest anymore,” Humphrey said.

The measure was adopted by 66 votes to 27.