Utah bill focuses on highway protests
November 23, 2020
A pursuit underway at the Utah statehouse addresses concern about highway protests that disrupt traffic. The legislative pursuit is in response to traffic interruptions this year related to protests and demonstrations over police actions.
Advocates say efforts to keep protests off busy roadways are a commonsense 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 on highway protests
In 2017, two states enacted laws to address concern about protests on roadways.
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 addressing the issue 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.
A proposed bill in Utah again addresses the topic. The measure would amend statute that covers protests in the state that block roadways.
The Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee met last week to discuss the proposal to boost the punishment for obstructing traffic.
Additionally, the effort would protect drivers in certain situations who attempt to leave the scene of a traffic blockage.
The legislation pursued by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, would make the “intentional obstruction of traffic during a riot” a third-degree felony. Offenders found guilty of the offense would face up to five years behind bars.
Utah law already prohibits obstructing a roadway. Offenders face a Class B misdemeanor.
The second part of the legislation would “eliminate criminal responsibility” for drivers who injure and/or kill anyone while the vehicle is “attempting to flee from a riot.”
The protection for drivers would be applied during instances when there is “a reasonable belief that fleeing is necessary to protect the motor vehicle driver from serious injury or death.” Additionally, the driver must be “exercising due care” at the time of the injury or death.
Points in favor and in opposition
Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon told the committee the effort to boost punishment for rioters to a felony is in reaction to protests this summer in Portland, Ore., that turned violent. He said there were instances there where emergency personnel were blocked from getting to where they needed to go. Arbon added that other drivers were confronted on the roadway.
Violators faced minor punishment for blocking traffic, he said.
“There was very little or nothing (police) could do about it,” Arbon testified.
William Carlson, representing the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, said criminalizing the actions in the bill would be an act to block one of the defining features of protest.
“Marching in the streets back even before Selma, Ala., included blocking traffic as a part of the protest,” Carlson said.
Hawkins told committee members the effort is not intended to hinder efforts to protest.
“We respect the right of the people to peacefully assemble,” Hawkins said. “That’s not what we’re trying to change here in this bill.
“When that peaceable assembly becomes a violent assembly, that’s what we’re trying to determine and to enhance the penalties on.”
Carlson said the bill would create an “affirmative defense to killing or injuring someone inside the riot act itself.”
The committee voted 8-6 to advance the effort to allow for further consideration during the regular session that begins Jan. 19. LL