Nine states address concerns about protests that block highways

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Friday, March 03, 2017

State lawmakers across the nation continue to discuss concerns about protests that shut down major highways. The legislative action is in response to traffic disruptions in recent months related to police involved shootings and the results of the presidential election.

Minnesota is among the states considering legislation to strengthen or supplement existing law that covers transportation blockages.

The public safety committees in the House and Senate approved bills that cover protesters who obstruct traffic access to a highway, airport or public transit.

State law now permits such actions to carry up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The legislation, HF390/SF676, would raise the penalty for obstructing access to one year in jail and/or $3,000 fines.

Another House bill, HF1066, would impose the same penalties for incidents that occur on highways and roadways within airport property.

Critics say a higher fine will not deter protesters. Instead, they say the legislation only threatens their First Amendment rights.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said the bills also fail to address unfair societal issues.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, denies his bill – HF390 – and others would stifle free speech.

“Some people believe incorrectly that they have a right to camp out on a freeway to impede traffic and to bring everything to a halt,” Zerwas said during a House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee hearing. “If you believe it’s a First Amendment right to block a freeway, you’re mistaken. That is against the law already.”

The bills have moved to their respective chamber floors for further consideration.

Another House bill still in committee would permit state agencies, municipalities and towns to sue protesters convicted of unlawful assembly or public nuisance.

Gov. Mark Dayton says he classifies the issue as a “very, very serious matter” that he will look at very carefully.

The issue is also being addressed across the state line in Iowa.

The Senate State Government Committee voted on Thursday, March 2, to advance a bill to the chamber floor that covers protesters who intentionally block highways.

Iowa law authorizes $35 fines for blocking traffic on highways with a posted speed of at least 55 mph.

SSB1135, which moves to the Senate floor as SF426, would boost the punishment to a year behind bars and a fine of up to $1,875.

A separate bill in the House would implement $1,000 fines for blocking highways. HF226 also focuses on people who organize protests intended to shut down highways. Penalties would be set at two years in jail and a fine up to $6,250.

In Georgia, the Senate voted 40-12 to advance a bill to the House that includes stiffer penalties for highway protesters.

SB160 would set punishment at a maximum of $5,000 in fines and/or up to 12 months in jail – up from a maximum $1,000 fines and/or 12 months in confinement.

Across the border in Tennessee one bill would raise the fine for obstructing a roadway in certain incidents. Current fine is $50.

The Senate Transportation Committee is scheduled to discuss HB1051 on Tuesday, March 7, to increase the fine to $200 for any incident that obstructs an emergency vehicle.

“This bill allows for civil protest. It doesn’t allow for people who might decide to block the highway from emergency vehicles during that civil protest,” Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, testified during a subcommittee meeting.

A separate bill, SB944, covers punishment for accidently striking a pedestrian in the roadway. Specifically, drivers would be exempt from liability if they exercise “due care” while behind the wheel.

Drivers could still be found liable if the “actions leading to the injury were willful or wanton.”

“We are not endorsing anyone running over a person with car, whether it is protesters or anyone else,” Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said in prepared remarks. “This is a public safety bill that is meant to protect everyone’s right to peacefully protest.”

The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A similar effort in North Dakota died in committee.

One Florida bill would prohibit the obstruction of traffic during protests or demonstrations. Violators would face one year in jail and $1,000 fines.

The effort goes even further to forgive drivers who unintentionally cause injury or death to someone interfering with traffic during a protest. The burden of proof that the accident was intentional would fall on to injured protester.

A watered-down Indiana bill covers police involvement to break up protests that block traffic.

As introduced, SB285 permitted law enforcement to use “any means necessary” to clear roads.

During a recent committee hearing on the bill Sen. James Tomes, R-Wadesville, said “the idea of spontaneously getting out in the streets and bringing things to a grinding halt just doesn’t cut it.” He added that protesters need to get a permit if they want to block-off a street. Obtaining a permit would allow officials to prepare to help ensure traffic is not disrupted, he said.

The Senate approved the bill after a change was made striking the language for clearing roads. Instead, the revised version creates an infraction for “mass traffic obstruction” and allows state police to aid local enforcement impose it.

In addition, the issue was recommended for additional consideration by a summer study committee.

“It is my hope that if there is a summer study of this issue, it will reveal this kind of legislation has dangerous implications, and will therefore not be considered next legislative session,” stated Sen. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend.

The South Dakota Senate voted 21-14 to advance a bill making it a crime to stand in a highway to block traffic. SB176 would set punishment at 30 days in jail and/or $500 fines.

The House State Affairs Committee is scheduled to consider the bill on Monday, March 6.

A Connecticut bill would also set stiff penalties for protesters who obstruct emergency vehicles. State law now sets penalties at up to $250.

HB7139 would set penalties for “willfully” blocking emergency vehicles at one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

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