In response to a summer marked by protests against police violence across the country, two Missouri lawmakers are pushing for laws that protect drivers from liability for hitting protesters with their cars.
State Senator-Elect Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, is sponsoring a bill banning lawsuits against drivers for injuries to anyone who "blocked traffic on a public path while attending a protest or demonstration" was because the act of the driver "represents gross negligence."
Brattin's bill is a far-reaching proposal that targets demonstrations in numerous other ways. It would also benefit public employees convicted of unlawful gathering or rioting, withhold state funds from local governments that overcrowd police budgets, and impose five to 15 years' imprisonment for demolishing a monument on public property.
At Missouri House, Rep. Adam Schnelting, R-St. Charles also wants to protect drivers who injure or kill protesters with their cars. His proposal, which covers both civil and criminal liability, would apply to persons fleeing an "unlawful or seditious gathering" when "the person reasonably believes that they or an occupant of the motor vehicle is in danger".
The General Assembly holds its annual meeting on January 6th. Legislative staff began assigning invoice numbers and posting pre-filed invoices on December 1st. Early filing ensures a low invoice number, but does not give legislation a priority point of discussion.
Brattin, a former member of the House of Representatives who is returning to Jefferson City after two years as a chartered accountant in Cass County, did not respond to messages asking for a comment on his bill.
Schnelting told The Independent in an interview that he only wants to protect people who are unintentionally involved in a riot.
The scenario he envisions, according to Schnelting, is a 20-year-old mother with two babies in the back seat who is in a violent situation in which rioters are trying to break into her car.
“She has the right to flee to protect herself without being charged,” he said.
Both unlawful gatherings and civil unrest have specific definitions and penalties in state law. Schnelting said he was not trying to legalize car ramming peaceful protesters, even if their message was personal.
"I've been yelled at many times," said Schnelting. "That doesn't mean I'm in danger."
Despite the legislature's intentions, Frank Bowman, professor of law at the University of Missouri who specializes in criminal justice, worries the door opened by the bills when they became law.
"Let's say I get scared by the Black Lives Matter protesters or the Proud Boys on the corner and race off," Bowman said. “Apparently there is no limit to how careful I have to be. This is basically an open season for any pedestrian who happens to be in a block, two blocks, three blocks. "
That summer, and even into early fall, people flocked to the street following the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man who died after a white police officer put his knee to Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes lay handcuffed.
The Missouri scenes weren't new. Similar protests erupted after Michael Brown's deaths in Ferguson in 2014 and 2017, when former St. Louis police officer Jason Shockley was acquitted on Anthony Lamar Smith's death in 2011.
What was different across the country and in some parts of Missouri that summer was the size, duration and scope of the protests.
During one of the first protests in St. Louis this summer, Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis said the people were in the target lot in Brentwood. They didn't disturb the traffic, but a truck drove through the crowd. The driver later circled back and shot a gun out the window, Aldridge said.
Nobody was injured.
"They try to criminalize people who take to the streets, but then accept different behavior:" It's okay. If you see people on the street, just run over them, "Aldridge said.
Schnelting said his proposal was bound by state law definitions of unlawful assembly and riot, which require at least six people to come together to break the law by force or violence.
"I want to keep it tight," he said. "I have no intention of expanding that."
The provisions that would protect motorists aren't the only legislative ideas inspired by the summer protests.
For example, a handful proposed by minority Democrats would prohibit or restrict chokeholds and make it easier for law enforcement agencies to keep a record of applicant misconduct.
Meanwhile, Republicans have filed bills that cause crimes against the police or protect their personal information from disclosure in public records such as property tax records.
Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, tabled a bill making it an offense punishable by up to a year in prison if the light of a laser pointer is shined at a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, or other uniformed officer becomes.
Walsh could not be reached for comment on their bill.
Bowman said the bill would often criminalize innocent behavior. It "does not require evidence of a mental state requiring intent to cause harm," he noted. "The mental state is just an intention to point the laser pointer at the person."
The use of laser pointers by protesters was first discovered in Hong Kong democracy demonstrators who used the powerful lights used by authorities to disrupt cameras and facial recognition devices.
Like Brattin, Schnelting also wants to restrict benefits for people convicted of violating the law in protests.
He sponsors a bill to deny unemployment payments for 18 months to people convicted of rioting. The provision in Brattin's bill would only apply to public employees who take away health, disability, retirement and other benefits for state or local government employees convicted of unlawful congregation or riot.
The aim is to prevent violence, said Schnelting, not to protest.
"Protest is a uniquely American thing," he said. "Riots, on the other hand, are much worse."
However, Aldridge said the bill is wrongly targeting the poor.
"You are basically telling me that if you are poor and you have no job, there will be an extra penalty," he said. "But if you're a rich person and do something like that and have a job, you won't get that punishment."
The idea behind the proposal is not new, Bowman said. The law contains provisions that are "collateral consequences of conviction," such as the loss of the right to own a firearm after conviction of a crime.
"As far as anyone cares, the overwhelming consensus among criminologists and criminal lawyers is that these types of collateral consequences are almost always a bad idea," he said.
And whether both are applied to anyone is questionable. The St. Louis County Attorney's Office received two referrals from law enforcement for rioting in the past 12 months and declined to file either of the defendants, according to prosecutor spokesman Chris King.
Brattin's Bill creates new grounds for civil actions, allows lethal force to be used to protect property by private individuals designed to protect it, refuses bail to those convicted of demonstration-related crimes, and creates new crimes for application against protesters.
In a civil court, Brattin would allow people to sue their local governments for "gross neglect" in protecting property. Defacing monuments or public buildings would be a class B crime, which, according to a provision of the draft law, can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
And among the crimes it causes is a crime for illegal traffic incidents.
In March, a federal judge ruled the St. Louis "Obstructing" Traffic Ordinance was unconstitutional and overturned a law that allowed city police to arrest people during protests and to use maces and electric batons.
U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey ruled that the municipal ordinance was unconstitutional because it was too vague and did not include an exception to freedom of speech.
In his opinion, Autrey wrote that the ordinance could apply to “two neighbors standing and talking on a residential street or people gathering for a block party in the neighborhood. This applies to a single person or a group of people standing on a sidewalk waiting for an Uber to arrive. "
Javad Khazaeli, civil rights attorney at Khazaeli Wyrsch, said the federal case provides the rationale for why the proposed shield is unconstitutional.
"It is written that if someone sees a protest that they don't like, especially if they block traffic, they can just drive through the protest and kill as many people as they want," he said. "And then right after (let's say):" Oops, I was scared. "And then you argue about a reasonable meeting and that's crazy."
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