States take action on highway protests
State lawmakers in four states have taken action to address concerns about highway protests that disrupt traffic.
The legislative pursuit in recent months is in response to traffic interruptions over the past year related to protests and demonstrations.
Advocates say efforts to keep protests off busy roadways are a commonsense way to help ensure public safety. Critics view efforts to punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment.
Adoption of rules to address highway protests is not new at statehouses. In 2017, South Dakota and Tennessee enacted laws covering the issue.
South Dakota law authorizes penalties for standing in a highway to block traffic. Specifically, the rule sets punishment at one year in jail and/or a $2,000 fine. Previously, the state could punish offenders with 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
In Tennessee, a law quadrupled the previous fine of $50 for obstructing a roadway in certain incidents. Offenders now face $200 fines for any incident that impedes an emergency vehicle from responding to an emergency.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a related bill. The new law 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 up to $10,000.
The Iowa legislature has sent a similar piece of legislation to the governor for a signature.
The lengthy bill, SF342, includes a provision to provide civil immunity for drivers of vehicles who injure someone blocking traffic. The bill 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 Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill to give legal protections to drivers described as “trying to escape from riots.”
Previously HB1674, the new law provides civil and criminal liability protection 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.
“This is an important protection for citizens who are just trying to get out of a bad situation,” Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, said in previous remarks. “When fleeing an unlawful riot, they should not face threat of prosecution for trying to protect themselves, their families or their property.”
The new rule takes effect on Nov. 1.
Emergency vehicles responding to emergencies are the focus of legislation approved by the Texas Legislature.
Similar to the Tennessee rule, the Texas bill would increase punishment for people who knowingly obstruct emergency vehicles from passing or accessing a hospital entrance.
HB9 would authorize a felony charge for protesters who block emergency vehicles from passing.
Offenders in the state now face misdemeanor charges for such actions.
The bill on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk would carry a felony charge with up to two years in prison. Offenders who are sentenced to probation would spend at least 10 days behind bars.
Bills in Maryland, Missouri and Rhode Island called for offenders to face felony charges for blocking roadways failed to receive legislative approval.
The Mississippi Senate approved a bill to increase penalties under existing law for obstructing roadways. Offenders would face fines up to $1,500 and/or up to one year in jail. The minimum punishment called for anyone found guilty to pay a $500 fine and to spend 25 days behind bars.
The bill died in the House. LL