One of our rights as Americans is that of free speech, which includes being able to participate in protests against various issues. However, if we engage in a meeting that becomes violent (also known as a riot), the First Amendment protections are no longer valid. Whether or not such action is a felony depends on where or how it occurred.

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State Laws Prohibiting Riots

Iowa has a law on the books that specifically penalizes rioting. It defines a riot as 3 or more people at a gathering in which violence ensues. That means if you and a friend are together and your friend starts hitting trash cans with a bat, you wouldn’t be arrested for rioting. Although, your friend might be accused of disorderly conduct.

However, say a third person joins you and your friend, and you start smashing windows of nearby businesses. Your behavior might be considered rioting.

A riot isn’t just when 3 or more people assemble together and destroy property. It also includes:

  • Disturbing others, and
  • Using unlawful force or violence against someone else

If you violate the rioting law, you could be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor. The punishments for this offense include imprisonment for up to 2 years and a fine between $625 and $6,250.

Unlawful Assembly

Iowa also has a law that prohibits 3 or more people from getting together and acting in a violent manner. This is what’s called unlawful assembly. To be charged with this crime, you and your friends must have gathered with the intention of committing a public offense.

The difference between unlawful assembly and rioting is that the former does not involve using force against another person or causing property damage. As such, unlawful assembly is charged as a simple misdemeanor. Although still serious, the conviction penalties are less than those for rioting. A conviction could result in a fine between $65 and $625. The judge may also sentence you to up to 30 days in jail.

Failure to Disperse

If law enforcement is informed that you and your friends are rioting or unlawfully assembled, they may order you to cease your activity. Anyone in hearing distance of the order must leave the area. Failing to do so is an offense called failing to disperse, which is also a simple misdemeanor.

Federal Laws Concerning Rioting

In some situations, gathering with 3 or more people is a federal crime.

The U.S. government defines a riot as:

  • An assembly of 3 or more people
  • That causes a public disturbance, which includes:
    • Acts of violence that put others or property in danger of injury or damage
    • Threats to commit acts of violence, with 1 or more people in the group having the ability to fulfill that threat

What distinguishes federal law from state law is that a riot becomes a federal crime when it crosses state lines or moves into another country. You don’t have to actually travel to another location to be charged.

It’s a crime to use communication including, but not limited to, mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television to:

  • Urge other people to riot;
  • Promote, organize, or participate in a riot;
  • Commit an act of violence as part of a riot;
  • Aid or abet in inciting a riot

If you’re in Iowa and are involved in acts of violence with 2 or more friends, you’re violating state laws. However, if you call an acquaintance in Illinois to join you, you’re breaking federal statutes.

A conviction under federal rioting laws could result in up to 5 years in prison and/or fines.

Are you facing a state or federal crime? If so, call Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger at (319) 499-5524 or fill out an online contact form to get the aggressive defense you need in Iowa City.