There is a misconception among Americans that riot and protests mean the same thing -- they don't. For one thing, the latter is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Americans have the right to march, parade, circulate petitions, leaflets, ask for signatures, and other forms of peaceful protests. This is true regardless of how controversial your views and opinions may be (as long as it does not qualify as hate speech). On the other hand, riots are always violent in nature; hence, these are not protected by the law. Furthermore, protests show dislike and desire for change. For example, many people walked on the streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest for the abolition of police. The cause is generally to fight racism, but as violence and looting pursued during the event, many people have categorized it as a riot.
In California, inciting a riot is a prosecutable act under California Penal Code PC 404.6. More specifically, a person may be punished under this law if:
- He or she intends to spark a riot;
- He or she engages in or supports a riot;
- He or she urges other people to commit acts of violence such as burning or destroying properties; and/or
- He or she puts the welfare of an individual or property at stake in the process of inciting a riot.
Some people think that an act can only be classified as a riot if it involves a large group of people. However, that's not necessarily the case. In fact, you may be charged with inciting a riot even if there were only two of you who participated in it. Furthermore, you also do not need to be physically present to be guilty of PC 404.6 as long as there is an element of “intent” to cause a riot. For example, you might in the comfort of your home and post something on social media where you urge your followers to burn down buildings if your candidate loses the election. You create a group, initiate a meeting, and talk extensively about how you're going to destroy everything on your way. On the day of the riot, however, none of you actually show up and the rioting does not occur. Despite this, you and your friends can still be charged under PC 404.6 for simply having the “intent” to initiate violence.
Due to the wide scope of the crime, there are several related offenses under state law, such as:
- Participating in a riot;
- Unlawful assembly;
- Refusal to disperse; and
- Disturbing the peace.
Each of these has its own corresponding sets of penalties.
Meanwhile, California Penal Code PC 404.6(c) encompasses riots that occur inside the state prison or county jail premises. We will discuss the punishments of both scenarios in the subsequent paragraphs.
Penalties for Inciting a Riot
If the court rules you guilty of initiating or planning a riot, your charge will only be classified as a misdemeanor offense. A misdemeanor is heavier than an infraction but less serious than a felony. With that said, a person who is convicted under PC 404.6 may face the following consequences:
- A fine not exceeding $1,000, and/or
- A county jail sentence of not more than 1 year.
The situation is different if the riot happened within the walls of a state prison or a county jail. For this, a person may be convicted of either a misdemeanor or a felony. It is usually determined as a misdemeanor if the act did not result in a serious bodily injury to anyone. However, if it did, then the case will most likely be upgraded to a felony.
For a misdemeanor, the penalties will be:
- 1 year in county jail, and/or
- A fine up to $1,000
For a felony, the defendant may be sentenced to
- 16 months;
- 2 years; or
- 3 years in county jail.
Legal Defenses for Inciting a Riot
Unfortunately, some people get dragged into a crime they did not commit. If you have been charged with inciting a riot, it is best to seek professional help from a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Depending on the facts of your case, they may use the following defenses:
- You were falsely accused.
- You had no intent to cause or stir violence;
- You happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time; and
- You did urge others to protest, but you did not encourage anyone to commit violent acts
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