It didn’t take long for the Ferguson protests of 2014 to make their way out of the city and onto the interstate. When protesters shut down I-70 the day after Michael Brown was killed, more than 60 were arrested.
Under a bill heard Tuesday by the House public safety committee, those protesters could have faced felony charges for unlawful traffic interference.
Under current law, intentionally impeding traffic is a misdemeanor. Under the House bill, it would be a more severe misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on the second. It would automatically be a felony if the action took place on an interstate or if the group were unlawfully assembled.
“Over the last few years we’ve seen peaceful protests and assemblies turn into mobs,” said Rep. Nick Marshall, a Parkville Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “This bill is drafted to address part of that problem, and that problem is the blocking of vehicular traffic which is trapping citizens in their cars and unlawfully detaining them.”
Similar bills have been filed in Iowa, Mississippi and Washington. Several other states are considering a variety of ways to crack down on protesters.
Marshall said protesters who block traffic impede the rights of others to travel freely. His bill, he said, would protect everyone’s safety.
Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat, said such legislation could threaten protesters’ constitutional rights.
Franks is serving in the House for the first time this year. He was a prominent Ferguson protester who was arrested in 2014.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Franks said he would have a felony on his record if this bill had been law then.
“I understand the danger. ... Not all protests are peaceful,” Franks said. “It just depends on what you define as peaceful.”
He said he was concerned that young students who protest would face lifelong consequences for a felony charge they received for being “passionate” and feeling “empowered to protest.”
Under current law, second-time offenders could receive up to a year in jail for road obstruction. The bill would increase that to a possible seven years for protesters in unlawfully assembled groups.
Protesters must demonstrate intent to impede traffic to be subject to punishment.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, a St. Louis County Republican, said there would be no way to determine intent.
“How do you go to intentionality?” Dogan asked. “Couldn’t I just say that my purpose here was just to exercise my First Amendment right to free speech and blocking traffic was just kind of a side effect?”
The Missouri State Troopers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Missouri Sheriff’s Association testified in favor of the bill.
Marshall said that while he thinks the right to protest is essential, so too are the rights of motorists.
“If I’m actually trapped on an interstate,” he said, “I’m surrounded by angry cars and people, I have trouble distinguishing that from being unlawfully imprisoned.”