Six states target highway protests in bills

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 1/31/2017

In response to protests that shut down major highways around the country in recent months, state lawmakers from Mississippi to Washington state are pursuing actions to strengthen or supplement existing laws that cover traffic disruption.

An Indiana bill would direct police to act quickly to break up protests that block traffic. Specifically, authorities would have 15 minutes to “dispatch all available” personnel after receiving a report of at least 10 people obstructing traffic.

The bill from Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, would authorize law enforcement to use “any means necessary” to clear the roads.

During a recent committee hearing on the bill Tomes 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.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view bills that would punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment.

The Senate Local Government Committee discussed the bill during a Jan. 18 hearing. Committee Chairman James Buck, R-Kokomo, said he anticipates fixes to the bill before it could advance from committee.

The issue is also being addressed at the Iowa statehouse. A Senate bill would prohibit people from intentionally blocking traffic on highways with speeds posted at 55 mph or more.

Sponsored by Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, the bill would authorize people found in violation of the rule to face felony charges punishable by up to five years in prison and/or fines up to $7,500.

Iowa law already prohibits people from placing obstructions on roadways. Violators face up to two years behind bars and fines up to $6,250.

Chapman, the chief operating officer of an ambulance service, says he recognizes the right to protest but that interstates are not the place to do it.

Multiple efforts underway in the Minnesota Legislature also seek to invoke higher penalties for highway protests.

Two bills would mandate that “obstruction” of roadways become a felony if emergency personnel are blocked from carrying out their duties.

The House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee voted to advance another bill that would permit state agencies, municipalities and towns to sue protesters convicted of unlawful assembly or public nuisance.

“I think if you’re convicted of a crime where you intentionally inflict as much expense and cost upon a community as possible, you ought to get a bill,” testified Rep. Nike Zerwas, R-Elk River.

A separate bill would make intentionally obstructing traffic on highways punishable up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

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

A third effort would allow cities or the state to sue protesters for public safety costs spent on response.

Critics say the legislation serves solely to intimidate legal protesters.

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

In Mississippi, a Senate bill would create a felony for “maliciously impeding traffic” on a public road.

Violations would cover occurrences of sitting, standing or lying on highways that impede or hinder emergency vehicles. Offenders would face up to five years behind bars and fines up to $10,000.

A Washington bill would make disruption of transportation and commerce a felony offense punishable by up to 12 months in jail.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the “economic terrorism” measure is prompted by recent actions that blocked rail and highway transportation.

One North Dakota state lawmaker is going a step further. Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, is the owner of a livestock and grain feed hay hauling company in Bowman, N.D.

The House Transportation Committee recently heard his bill that covers punishment for accidentally striking a pedestrian in the roadway. Specifically, motorists and other drivers would be exempt from liability if they “unintentionally” strike and injure, or kill, someone obstructing traffic.

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