New England state lawmakers pursue stiff penalties for blocking highways

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 1/27/2015

In response to recent protests that shut down major highways in Massachusetts and elsewhere, lawmakers in two New England states are pursuing stiffer punishment for actions that disrupt traffic.

Multiple Massachusetts lawmakers are advocating for rule changes that would make blocking a highway in order to protest a felony offense.

The legislative actions follow protests Jan. 15 in the Boston area that blocked two sections of Interstate 93 during morning rush hour and reportedly resulted in the diversion of an ambulance. In December, the Massachusetts Turnpike was also shut down for a short time by protesters. A similar protest recently blocked I-95 in Providence, R.I., for about 15 minutes.

Activists were protesting recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers for the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

Massachusetts Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, is one of three Bay State lawmakers to propose harsh penalties for shutting down traffic. His proposal would make trespassing on a state highway without just cause an offense that could result in a minimum $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

State law now authorizes fines up to $50 or up to three months in jail.

“While I respect and encourage meaningful discourse and lawful protesting, the line must be drawn when lives are put at risk,” Ross said in a news release. “Those who endangered not only themselves, but hundreds of others must be held accountable.”

Reps. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, and Tim Whelan, D-Barnstable, are also drafting legislation that would put the hammer down on protests along highways.

Whelan, a former Massachusetts State Trooper, is proposing to set up to $2,500 fines and up to one year behind bars for blocking travel.

In addition to safety concerns, Whelan said the “irresponsible acts” also “caused a drain on public resources at great monetary expense to the public.”

Rhode Island Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, D-Coventry, is pushing a bill in his statehouse that would make “unlawful interference with traffic” a felony. Violators would face anywhere from 60 days to three years behind bars.

Highway blockages that factor into the death to any person could result in prison sentences between three and five years.

Raptakis said recent events show that existing penalties are not enough of a deterrent for behavior he describes as very dangerous.

“Protesters have rights, but so does the rest of the public. And this legislation will ensure that individuals who interfere with the safety of others on roadways and highways will face legal consequences.”

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