House panel affirms 25-foot police no-bystanders zone

And a Senate committee kills bill allowing seat belt usage be admissible in court

By: - February 9, 2023 6:00 am

Plainfield Police Chief Kyle Pruitt testifies in support of a proposal making it a crime to refuse a police officer’s request to move 25 feet away. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

House lawmakers on Wednesday easily advanced a bill creating a buffer zone around officers conducting arrests — and making it a crime to breach the zone.

The smooth proceedings contrasted with contentious discussion on the same topic in an interim study committee.

House Bill 1186 says that people who “knowingly or intentionally” get within 25 feet of law enforcement officers doing their jobs would commit “unlawful encroachment on an investigation” if the officers have asked them to back off. The new crime would be a Class C misdemeanor.

“If there’s something that we can do [for] preventing that escalation, preventing the officer from being touched by someone who’s not even involved in the situation, I hope that this bill is the one to do it,” author Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, told the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee.

Zach Stock of the Indiana Public Defender Council said that Indiana already has laws police officers can use to push bystanders back, like refusal to help an officer or refusal to leave an emergency incident area — which Stock said includes arrests.

Howard County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Jordan Buckley argued the emergency incident area law was designed for firefighters, an argument Evansville Police Department Officer Mark Saltzman echoed.

“The laws that we have on the books now … are not really designed for our normal, everyday interactions,” he said. “They’re designed for established scenes and established perimeters.”

Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville. (Photo from Indiana House Republicans)

“People are allowed, currently, to come right on top of us. … It oftentimes can force even more negative interactions with the police,” he continued. “Because now, I’m not only trying to arrest one person, but I’m having to deal with — in many cases — numerous people that are right on top of me: yelling, screaming, and sometimes touching.”

Saltzman previously conceded — while testifying at an October interim committee — that there should be zone exceptions for vehicle passengers and bystanders in other small, enclosed spaces like private homes, but there was no similar language in the bill.

Lawmakers like Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, asked how officers would enforce a 25-foot radius without formal measurements, and asked what the bill would change about how officers handle confrontations. Another Democrat, Rep. Robin Shackleford of Indianapolis, jokingly suggested officers wear masks emblazoned with the 25-foot zone notice, pandemic 6-feet-style.

“It’s easy to get kind of lost in the weeds on this, like what is 25 feet, or how does this make your job better?” Plainfield Police Chief Kyle Pruitt said. “It makes the job better because now you have legal authority to tell a person to get back 25 feet.”

A supportive Rep. Mitch Gore, D-Indianapolis, expressed some concern for the rights of people recording video — which he said might warrant future legislation — but added that technology is good enough for distanced filming.

“[In] the George Floyd video, they were right up on the officer that murdered George Floyd, and that contributed to how visceral the video was and and the public outcry,” he said. “I think that’s important. [But] I think that technology is in a place where I don’t think we’ll miss much of what’s happening … so I kind of got over that part of it.”

Gore said if he saw examples of that right to record law enforcement interactions be “betrayed” by this law, he’d “be coming back to see what we can do about it. But until and unless that happens, I think it’s a great piece of legislation.”

The bill has no exceptions for people recording interactions, or for members of the media. They’d also have to get outside the 25-foot zone, according to McNamara, the author.

“If you want to go 25 feet back and record everything you want to record, you’ll have the opportunity to do so,” McNamara told the Capital Chronicle after the committee. “You can do whatever you want, 25 feet back.”

The committee passed the bill unanimously, 11-0.

In jest, Shackleford suggested a slogan for the law: “Twenty-five to stay alive — just putting it out there!” she said to laughter.

Seat belts as court evidence bill dies

Whether you’re wearing a seat belt or not isn’t a fact you’re allowed to say in court — and it’ll likely stay that way, after the Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly voted down Senate Bill 163 Wednesday afternoon.

Right now evidence of seat belt usage isn’t admissible in civil suits following car crashes. The bill was trying to change that so that those responsible for causing the crash might pay less if the injured person wasn’t wearing a safety restraint.

Lawyers worried the measure would lay a heavy burden of proof on the victims of crashes, or take too much money from them. Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, also repeatedly remarked that some older car models don’t have seat belts at all.

Debate over the bill was somewhat heated Wednesday and during a hearing last month, when the bill was first heard.

Lawyers from both sides of the aisle went back and forth with author Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, and second author Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, over the legal nuances and implications.

Recent attempts to change the law didn’t get committee votes the last four years. Similar bills failed multiple times before then. One passed out of both chambers in 2005, for example, but then-Gov. Mitch Daniels vetoed it.

The prohibition on talking seat belts in court dates back decades, which Brown — also the committee chair — has repeatedly noted.

“I personally feel that this is archaic,” she said Wednesday. “This was a deal struck just for the state of Indiana to receive federal transportation dollars and to have a ‘seatbelt law requirement’ when they didn’t.”

The bill failed on a 5-6 vote.

This story has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Rep. Ragen Hatcher.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.