JEFFERSON CITY— Lawmakers expressed renewed interest in the possibility of higher penalties for protesters who block highways, as a proposed bill was heard this week by a Missouri Senate committee.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, would make it a Class A misdemeanor if a person obstructs an interstate highway or the pathway to or from a provider of emergency medical services. The resulting punishment would be a fine of $1,000-$5,000 or imprisonment for seven to 30 days.
Under current Missouri law, intentionally impeding traffic results in a Class B misdemeanor on first offense and a Class A misdemeanor on second offense. This bill takes and defines the previously mentioned actions, which would fall under "obstructing vehicular or pedestrian traffic" and puts them as a Class A misdemeanor on first offense.
Riddle said the bill was in response to requests of many of her constituents — particularly those nearest to St. Louis — who were concerned that highway blockage by protesters would restrict access to medical services in cases of emergencies.
"When protests lead to loss of life or injury, that is unacceptable," Riddle said.
Protesters blocking highways is nothing new in Missouri. The tactic was prominently used in the Ferguson protests of 2014, such as when I-70 was shut down by activists the day after Michael Brown was killed. More recently, protesters attempted to block a downtown St. Louis highway in September 2017 after former police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of charges in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Sara Baker, policy director of Missouri's American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the bill at the hearing, questioning its impact on First Amendment rights and insisting the current statute is enough for punishing those who impede traffic. She noted that protesters blocking highways are often arrested for trespassing or disobeying orders as well.
"We are very concerned about the large fine and the mandatory jail time that this invokes," Baker said. "We think that is targeting a selective form of protest, and it might not be content-neutral."
Baker also had concern over what she said was vagueness in the bill's language, saying there needs to be a more clear definition of "medical services."
"When we talk about medical services, are we saying we can't protest outside of abortion clinics?" she said.
Maj. Dale Schmidt of the Missouri Peace Officers Association was the only witness present in support of the bill at the hearing.
The bill is not the first proposal of its kind. In March, a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives that would have made interstate highway blockage a felony, failed to pass.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, email@example.com.