Flash mobs that create property damage could be charged as a crime under a bill that’s passed both chambers in the General Assembly. It’s now on its way to the governor.
Although the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, calls it “retail vandalism” instead of “flash mob” in the legislation, the discussion on the floor of the House of Representatives repeatedly focused on flash mobs. Why exactly a new category needs to be created to prosecute this type of behavior remained unclear.
In particular, Rep. Bo Mitchell asked: “I just wanna know one of these organizations that’s such a menace to society that we have to add this to the code.”
Often pointless and borne out of spontaneous fun more than sinister desire, most flash mobs are harmless. Examples include riding a subway with droves of others in just undergarments, synchronized dances, or mass pillow fights in public streets.
Yet Holt said if the mass gatherings involve “polluting the product of a retail establishment,” specific charges should be filed.
He originally had proposed the crime trigger a felony, but his final version would make “aggravated vandalism” a misdemeanor, which could lead to a $2,500 fine. It’s intent, according to Holt, is to protect “those in the business of doing business.”
The bill was one of two bills the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied for that passed the House on Wednesday. (The second would speed up the prosecution of union activists who trespass on private property.)
Writing for the American Bar Association, attorney Ruth Carter says criminalizing flash mobs is misguided. “When someone organizes a group to randomly attack strangers, that’s assault and battery. Those activities are not flash mobs. Referring to these incidents as flash mobs hurts the reputation of the real flash mob community. Real flash mobs have no criminal intent.”
Stepping back, do state lawmakers even have a unified understanding of flash mobs?
“Flash mob. I’m a little familiar with it,” said Rep Joe Townes. “It’s a new phenomenon that I think young people engage in.”
Townes added that if there are already ways of controlling uncivilized behavior in existing law, why add flash mobs as a separate offense?
According to the bill’s fiscal note, annual arrests and incarceration related to enforcing the new bill could cost taxpayers $90,000.