House votes to expand death penalty for police killings
© Greg Nash

The House passed legislation on Thursday that would make the murder of a law enforcement officer punishable by death.

Approved by a 271-143 vote, the measure expands the aggravating factors when a jury considers a death sentence in federal cases. 

Forty-eight Democrats voted with all but four Republicans in favor of the legislation, which was timed for a vote during National Police Week. 

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Federal law outlines 16 factors juries must consider when debating whether the death penalty is justified, such as whether the victim was a “high public official” or the accused committed the crime in a particularly cruel way.

Killing a federal law enforcement officer is already considered a factor for the death penalty under current law. The bill approved by the House would extend that to state and local police officers and first responders.

All 50 states also have laws increasing penalties for crimes against law enforcement. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteBooker wants more scrutiny of Amazon-Whole Foods merger Dem wants hearing on Amazon's bid for Whole Foods Surveillance reform déjà vu MORE (R-Va.) acknowledged the proposed change would likely have limited applicability given that most homicide cases are considered by state courts and that it may be rare for a law enforcement killing to be involved in a federal offense.
 
But bill’s proponents primarily wanted to send a deterrence message.
 
“Getting this bill signed into law will protect those who serve our communities and send a clear message: targeting or killing our first responders will not be tolerated,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), the bill’s author. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came out against the bill, arguing in a letter to House Judiciary Committee leaders that “expanding the number of aggravating factors that would subject a person to the death penalty is unnecessary and duplicative; counterproductive to improving law enforcement and community relations; and unlikely to prevent future violence against police.”

Civil rights groups said the bill falls in line with President Trump’s desire to get tough on crime and enforce “law and order,” but would ultimately be counterproductive.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTrump takes to Twitter to criticize media Dem senator: Administration crackdown on marijuana is ‘backward and inhumane’ Trump's DOJ gears up for crackdown on marijuana MORE directed federal prosecutors last week to charge and pursue the “most serious, readily provable offense” in criminal cases. The move prompted outcry from Democrats and libertarians such as Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSenate healthcare bill appears headed for failure Talk of Trump pardons reverberates on Sunday shows Paul says president likely has authority to pardon himself MORE (R-Ky.), who warned it would unnecessarily increase the prison population.

An Obama-era order in 2013 under then-Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderHolder defends Mueller: 'No basis to question the integrity of Mueller' Kamala Harris slams Sessions on criminal justice Deputy AG backs Sessions' tough on crime policy MORE instructed prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimums in some drug-related cases. 

Todd Cox, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund policy director, wrote in a Medium post this week that Congress should instead consider proposals that require police departments to provide anti-bias and de-escalation training. 

“Unfortunately, Congress has chosen to spend this week considering unnecessary and redundant legislation that will only widen the gap between communities and law enforcement, without any added security benefit,” Cox wrote. 

Democrats, who largely already oppose the death penalty, said it unnecessarily expanded the statute, particularly for if a defendant only attempted to kill a law enforcement officer.

“I’m not aware that we have in the law anywhere a death penalty for an attempted crime,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. “The attempted terrible act certainly should be punished. But not as severely as the accomplishment of the terrible act.”

The House is expected to consider another police-themed bill on Friday that would allow probation officers to arrest people without warrants if they forcibly assault or obstruct them during their official duties.