Proposed bills target higher penalties for highway protests

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's incoming crop of legislators have put forth a slate of bills to heighten criminal and financial penalties against protesters, particularly on highways -- including one that would turn one of the most commonly applied charg...

ST. PAUL - Minnesota’s incoming crop of legislators have put forth a slate of bills to heighten criminal and financial penalties against protesters, particularly on highways - including one that would turn one of the most commonly applied charges into a mandated felony.

The charge commonly known as “obstruction of justice” is levied against suspects in a variety of circumstances and is often coupled with more serious charges like assault.

Outside of traffic violations, it’s one of the most ubiquitously applied charges in the state. Since 2010, the charge has been levied in Minnesota 11,831 times, and of those, felonies have been incredibly rare: only 75 - less than one percent - were at the felony level.

Even gross misdemeanors are uncommon: the huge majority - 8,607, or roughly three-quarters - were simple misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors.

The charge can be a felony only if a suspect knew their act risked - or if it caused - death, serious harm or property damage.


A new bill with versions in both the House and Senate, neither of which has been scheduled for a hearing, would mandate that “obstruction” become a felony in all cases.

While nothing in the bill’s language mentions highways, the House bill’s author, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said “the goal here is public safety and getting people off of blocking the interstate during rush hour,” adding that “we have a professional protester class that is jeopardizing public safety with their actions.”

Over the past year, Black Lives Matter groups have staged multiple protests that have shut down interstate highways in the Twin Cities area. At least one other highway protest occurred in which Black Lives Matter organizers said they were not involved.

Garofalo repeatedly said he was concerned about ambulances not being able to reach hospitals, in addition to the risk to both protesters and drivers on the high-speed routes.

Garofalo did add, “I would be open to conversation to making sure this is focused on corridors of commerce, freeways and freeway ramps.”

The bill also changes the legal standard for proving obstruction: prosecutors would only have to prove someone “knowingly” obstructed, rather than “willfully.” In other words, the issue of intent, which can sometimes be difficult to prove, is out of the equation.

Another bill A separate House bill - which does mention highways - would make intentionally obstructing

traffic on such routes, in many cases, a gross misdemeanor. Previously, the law made all highway obstructions a simple misdemeanor.


Its author, Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater - who has also signed on to Garofalo’s bill - said, “Highways, by the way, are not public places… There are folks that have decided that that’s a good place to protest, and I think it’s a very serious public safety issue - not just for the drivers but for protesters as well.”

Her bill, she hopes, will “discourage and dissuade folks from using the freeway. There’s plenty of places to get your message out.”

Next week, a House committee will hold a hearing on a third bill, authored by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, that would allow governmental “units,” such as cities or the state, to sue protesters for public safety costs spent on responding to them if they are convicted of unlawful assembly or committing a public nuisance.

The bills - and the obstruction bill, in particular - have raised concerns of civil rights advocates, who say they appear to be more about countering free speech than threats to safety.

“Obstruction is already overcharged and often used as a catch-all when they are looking to charge someone with all sorts of conduct. It really feels like, a lot of times when you can’t get the protesters on other charges, you throw obstruction at them,” said Ben Feist, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “We expect a certain amount of proportionality (in our laws).”

Feist also had concerns about the proportionality of the highway bill. He noted that things like digging a hole, placing a building in a highway or damaging guardrails could still be construed as misdemeanors under the bill.

“It just seems like from a public safety standpoint, all of those things are potentially more dangerous than what we would call the inconvenience of a protest that shuts down a highway,” Feist said.

“The reality is that highways get shut down all the time … for construction projects and that kind of thing. The big complaint is really about the inconvenience that causes. The protesters understand that inconvenience, but it’s essential to move the conversation forward about important issues, like the killing of unarmed black men in Minnesota.”


Corydon Nilsson, an organizer with Black Lives Matter St. Paul, said protests conducted by his group include safety measures against traffic, such as a lead car to slow down other cars, meetings prior to marches and assigned marshals.

“It seems like it’s a direct attempt at suppressing our constitutional right to protest,” Nilsson said of the bills. “I noticed the language they used is we would be maintaining a public nuisance. But we don’t want to be out there. We’re only out there because of the magnitude of the issue.”

As for the obstruction bill, Nilsson said, “I’ve seen obstruction of justice charges for people trying to film police interaction,” referring to the case of Andrew Henderson, who was acquitted by a Ramsey County jury in 2014 for filming sheriff’s deputies and an ambulance crew in Little Canada.

In recent years, the St. Paul city attorney’s office has been presented with about 200 cases of obstruction and has dismissed a portion. Last year, the city received 213 cases for review and dismissed 44 - choosing to prosecute 169 of them.

That number of obstruction cases has come down in recent years. In 2005, a whopping 560 obstruction cases were referred to the St. Paul city attorney’s office, with some community groups decrying racial overtones, noting roughly 60 percent of those charged were African-Americans, who made up 12 percent of the city’s population.

The attorney’s office denied those accusations at the time but launched an effort to cut down on obstruction charges.

“There was in fact a concerted effort to reduce that number. We instituted extensive training with officers,” said current St. Paul city attorney Samuel Clark.

During the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, obstruction was not widely applied against protesters; more often, prosecutors charged for unlawful assembly or trespassing, though most of those charges were dismissed.

Related Topics: CRIME
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