Eight states adopting or nearing new rules on highway protests

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 4/6/2017

State lawmakers from around the country continue to work through concerns about protests that shut down major highways. The legislative action is in response to traffic disruptions the past few years related to protests and demonstrations.

South Dakota lawmakers approved a bill to authorize stiff penalties for standing in a highway to block traffic. It was subsequently sent to the governor and signed into law.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view efforts to punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the new law protects people who want to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.

“It also protects against people who trespass, obstruct traffic – create dangerous situations,” he said in remarks following the bill signing.

SB176 sets punishment at 1 year in jail and/or $2,000 fines. Previously, the state could punish offenders with 30 days in jail and/or $500 fines.

The change took effect with the governor’s signature.

A Minnesota public safety bill approved by the House includes a provision to increase penalties for impeding access to highways and roadways within airport property, as well as public transit.

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

If the new provisions are signed into law, anyone found guilty of blocking access would face up to one year behind bars and a $3,000 fine.

Critics say a higher fine will not deter protesters. Instead, they say the legislation threatens free speech.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, denies the effort 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 recent committee hearing. “If you believe it’s a First Amendment right to block a freeway, you’re mistaken. That is against the law already.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said during House floor discussion this week the concerns about emergency vehicles being blocked from passage are unfounded.

“We need to work on policies not out of anger, or because we are annoyed, but because they further a common good,” Omar said.

The bill, SF803, now heads to a conference committee made up of select lawmakers from both chambers to work out differences in the bill. The Senate-approved version did not include the protest provision.

Once legislators reach agreement on all provisions, the bill will head to the governor’s desk.

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

The Arkansas Legislature has also approved a bill to address “mass picketing” on the state’s roadways. Specifically, anyone found to obstruct traffic on public roads, railways, airports, or other forms of travel.

Violators would face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. In addition, any “person or entity who is harmed by unlawful mass picketing” would be permitted to take the offender to circuit court.

The bill, SB550, is on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk.

Across the state line in Tennessee, one bill sent to the governor would quadruple the fine for obstructing a roadway in certain incidents. The current fine is $50 fine.

The Legislature approved the bill, SB902, to increase the fine to $200 for any incident that impedes an emergency vehicle from responding to an emergency.

“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 recent meeting on the issue.

Similar efforts are underway in Florida and Texas.

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 cover punishment for accidentally striking a pedestrian in a roadway.

HB1419 would 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 to the injured protester.

A Texas bill also addresses liability for motorists and other drivers who hit a protester on the state’s roadways.

HB3432 would exempt affected drivers from liability as long as they were exercising “due care” while behind the wheel.

Drivers could still be found liable if the actions leading to the injury were “grossly negligent.”

A separate bill, HB2930, covers punishments for “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” blocking traffic. Offenders would face $2,000 fines and/or up to 180 days in jail.

In Missouri, a bill would criminalize efforts to interfere with traffic. HB826 covers “unlawful traffic interference if, with intention to impede vehicular traffic, a person walks, stands, sits, lies, or places an object” to block traffic.

Violators would face penalties that start at one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Violations that occur on interstates could result in up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

One Massachusetts state lawmaker is trying again to address concerns about highway blockages.

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

Rep. Colleen Gary, D-Dracut, has introduced a bill that covers anyone who intentionally blocks or prevents access to roadways posted with a speed limit of at least 30 mph. Violators could face 10 years in prison for stopping traffic.

Gary pursued a rule in 2015 to authorize the same punishment for blocking highways as attempted murder.

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