Four states act on highway protests

June 23, 2021

Keith Goble

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New laws in states around the country 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 in the states and elsewhere.

Advocates say efforts to keep protests off busy roadways are a common-sense 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 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, a law 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.

Iowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed into law a bill that addresses for drivers encountering protests.

Previously SF342, the new law 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.

The rule took effect immediately.

Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott enacted a rule that focuses on emergency vehicles responding to emergencies.

Similar to the Tennessee rule, the new rule in Texas would increase punishment for people who knowingly obstruct emergency vehicles from passing or accessing a hospital entrance.

Starting Sept. 1, HB9 authorizes a felony charge for protesters who block emergency vehicles from passing.

Offenders in the state now face misdemeanor charges for such actions. The new law carries a felony charge with up to two years in prison. Offenders who are sentenced to probation would spend at least 10 days behind bars.

Oklahoma

Across the border in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt put his signature on 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 of up to $5,000.

Violators would also be liable for any resulting injury to a person or property damage.

“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 the threat of prosecution for trying to protect themselves, their families or their property.”

The new rule takes effect on Nov. 1.

Florida

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law a related bill. The new law now in effect 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.

Efforts elsewhere

Efforts in the Tennessee and Missouri statehouses to address the issue failed to receive legislative approval.

The Tennessee House voted to advance a bill to revise the state’s 4-year-old rule on blocking roadways.

HB513 called for “intentional, knowing or reckless obstruction” of a roadway to become a felony. Offenders would face $3,000 fines and/or up to six years in prison.

Additionally, civil immunity would be provided for drivers of vehicles who injure or kill someone blocking traffic. The bill stipulates the driver must be exercising due care and unintentionally causing injury or death to someone in the roadway.

The bill would also increase the penalty for obstructing the movement of an emergency vehicle from $200 to $3,000 and/or up to six years in prison.

Senate lawmakers opted to hold the issue for a summer study.

In Missouri, House lawmakers endorsed a bill to include escalating penalties for blocking a roadway. The maximum punishment would be up to four years in prison.

The Senate later removed the provision from the bill. 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.