Alabama could soon join ranks of states to enact highway protest rules

August 5, 2021

Keith Goble

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Concern about protests that disrupt highway traffic are the topic of new laws in multiple states. The topic is expected to draw discussion in the months to come in states that include Alabama.

The legislative pursuits are in response to traffic interruptions in recent years related to protests and demonstrations over police actions around the country.

Advocates say efforts to keep protests off busy roadways are a common-sense way to help ensure public safety. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view efforts to punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment.

States take action

Adoption of rules to address highway protests is not new at statehouses. In 2017, South Dakota and Tennessee enacted laws covering the issue.

The South Dakota rule authorizes stiff penalties for standing in a highway to block traffic. Specifically, the rule sets punishment at one year in jail and/or $2,000 fines. Previously, the state could punish offenders with 30 days in jail and/or $500 fines.

In Tennessee, the state quadrupled the previous fine of $50 for obstructing a roadway in certain incidents. Offenders would face $200 fines for any incident that impedes an emergency vehicle from responding to an emergency.

Changes enacted this year

So far in 2021, legislatures in four more states took steps to discourage the practice of blocking roadways during protests.

Iowa law now includes a provision to provide civil immunity for drivers of vehicles who injure someone blocking traffic. The rule stipulates the injured person must have been blocking traffic while taking part in disorderly conduct or participating in a protest without a permit.

Drivers who strike a pedestrian must be exercising “due care” at the time of the incident. A court must prove a driver was engaging in “reckless or willful misconduct” to not be covered under the civil immunity protection.

In Texas, the rule focuses on emergency vehicles responding to emergencies.

Similar to the Tennessee rule, Texas law soon will authorize felony charges for people who knowingly obstruct emergency vehicles from passing or accessing a hospital entrance. The change takes effect on Sept. 1.

Across the state line in Oklahoma, a new law gives legal protections to drivers described as “trying to escape from riots.”

Civil and criminal liability protection will be provided to drivers who unintentionally cause injury or death while fleeing a scene described as a riot.

Any person who unlawfully obstructs a public street, road or highway by approaching vehicles or endangering the safe movement of vehicles or pedestrians would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The punishment could result in up to one year in jail and/or a fine up to $5,000.

The new rule takes effect on Nov. 1.

Florida has a new law now in effect that includes a provision to increase penalties for protesters who block roadways.

Protesters who “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road” would face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Alabama next in line?

Legislators in Alabama already are filing bills for consideration for the 2022 regular session. One topic that is likely to be discussed in both statehouse chambers is blocking roadways during protests.

Rep. Allen Treadway, R-Morris, and Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, have each filed legislation to create a new offense of unlawful traffic interference for anyone who “intentionally or recklessly” impedes highway traffic.

Offenders would face up to one year in jail and a fine up to $6,000. Repeat offenders would face up to five years behind bars.

The language is similar to a House-approved highway protests bill earlier this year.

HB2 and SB3 can be considered during the session that begins Jan. 11, 2022. LL

More state trends

Keith Goble, state legislative editor for Land Line Media, keeps track of many trends among statehouses across the U.S. Here are some recent articles by him.

Keith Goble has been covering trucking-related laws since 2000. His daily web reports, radio news and “OOIDA’s State Watch” in Land Line Magazine are the industry’s premier sources for information regarding state legislative affairs.