A bill seeking to toughen penalties against criminals who knowingly assault police and military personnel passed out of the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee Wednesday with a unanimous vote—but lingering doubts. Committee Chair Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, admitted he was uneasy with the bill granting special privileges to law enforcement. “If you’re going to elevate one person at a higher value, then you necessarily devalue other sets of people,” Madsen said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Senator Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, presented his Senate Bill 109, flanked by support from local law enforcement, the Utah Sentencing Commission, the director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police and others. The bill would increase the penalty for an individual who knowingly assaults on-duty law enforcement or uniformed military and causes severe bodily harm up to a third- degree felony, and enhances assault with a weapon or force enough to cause serious injury or death, up to a second-degree felony.
Osmond argued that increasing the penalty would provide more justice on behalf of the service of military personnel and law enforcement and also act as a deterrent to criminal behavior. Going into the committee hearing, Osmond acknowledged there may be a question of legality with the bill conflicting with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits states from denying residents equal protection under the law.
By enhancing penalties only for those who assault police and military personnel, Osmond acknowledged there is a concern of creating a special class for such individuals, but argued that Utah code already grants protection to various special vocations in the state including nurses, elected officials and law enforcement.
“This is not a violation of the 14th Amendment,” Osmond said of existing enhanced penalties on the books for individuals who commit simple assault against law enforcement. “We’re simply taking it to the next step. This is a state policy issue, not a constitutional issue.”
Kelly Atkinson, director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, challenged that, indeed, law enforcement deserve some special protections for the service they provide. “[On] 9/11 when everybody was running out of the [World Trade Center] buildings, our police and firemen were running into the buildings,” Atkinson said. “Because that’s what we hire them to do.” Atkinson also said that over the last three years, there have been five cases where the enhanced penalties could have been applied.
One member of the public, however, argued that if the enhancement was good enough for law enforcement, it should be good enough for all citizens.
“My concern is that if assault against a police officer is a serious- and grievous-enough offense, it should be a felony. I would submit to the representatives that assault against my sister, or girl scouts or old men in the park is worthy of that same protection,” said Brent Tenney, a citizen. “And those citizens deserve equal protection under the law just as much as police officers.”
For committee chair Sen. Madsen, it was a point that he had to agree with.
While acknowledging and commending the added risks and sacrifices of law enforcement, Madsen questioned the policy. “I don’t think it’s a matter of violating equal protections, but as a public policy matter, it does give me pause,” Madsen said. Ultimately, Madsen erred toward the bill being presented to the Senate floor for a fuller debate among the body, but told the sponsor that he may vote against it later.
“I don’t want the bill to die in committee when it’s worth having a discussion,” Madsen said.