SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A controversial bill to increase penalties against protestors who block traffic received approval to move forward. However, the bill is getting a lot of pushback.
The bill, not numbered yet, will do two things according to Representative Jon Hawkins.
It would first increase the penalties for people who intentionally block traffic during a protest. After receiving feedback from Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice Interim Committee, Hawkins decided the penalty for this act is a misdemeanor.
Hawkins said he was inspired to draft the bill after seeing protests turn violent in cities like Portland and Seattle. He cited the story of a teenage girl who tried to take her father to the hospital, but protesters were blocking her from getting there.
Hawkins said, “I know if I had a loved one in need of an emergency responder and somebody is blocking those vehicles from helping, there ought to be a felony.”
Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon witnessed protests in Portland, Oregon, and he said people clogging the roads had more destructive intentions than just stopping vehicles.
Arbon cited protestors weaponized their presence on the roads, and things quickly turned violent if drivers tried to escape.
“These are people with signs and they would deliberately surround cars, forced [people] out, beat them and all kinds of things if they did not acknowledge or participate in the protest,” Arbon said.
The second thing the bill would do is “eliminate criminal responsibility” if a driver hits a protestor with their car while trying to flee the scene if they’re in danger.
This language caused a lot of hesitation among other lawmakers. Senator Daniel Thatcher was in favor of giving people an extra layer of protection if they’re being threatened.
However, Thatcher does not want the law to protect anyone who intentionally drives into a crowd, unprovoked.
Opponents of the bill believe the bill goes too far to criminalize something that has been used by protestors for many years.
Will Carlson, with the Salt Lake County DA’s Office, reported “interrupting traffic as a part of a protest is part of America’s tradition of protests. Marching in the streets, even in Selma, Alabama, used blocking traffic as a part of the protest.”
Other lawmakers worry the law wouldn’t be evenly applied since some people may interpret “riot” in different ways.
“One of the problems we see with the definition of ‘riot’ is the vague language,” one anonymous woman says.
The bill didn’t get unanimous support from the interim committee, but it was approved for further discussion.
Lawmakers expect the proposed bill against rioters who block traffic to be tweaked a few more times before it is voted upon.
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