Bill Creates Criminal Defense for Driving Through Protestors

A new bill was proposed that would make a criminal defense for Utah drivers plowing through protestors. The “Roadway Obstruction Amendments” bill, introduced by Rep. Jon Hawkins of Utah District 57, could make protestors face up to five years in prison for blocking the street. Drivers who run over and kill protestors may not face time. 

Rep. Jon Hawkins, who ran and won unopposed this year, says that the bill is focused on preventing riots, not on discouraging peaceful protest. He says that the bill was inspired by “situations around the country that have happened where a person has been detained and pretty much immediately released and gone on to commit some other crimes during a riot.” The bill would make blocking the street a third-degree felony, putting it on par with promoting prostitution or causing substantial property damage.

Motor vehicle drivers wouldn’t face criminal liability over killing someone if they believe there is a riot, fleeing is necessary to protect themselves, or if they were exercising “due care” at the time of the death or injury. Notably, the bill doesn’t present a definition of what a riot is. Utah’s laws are also vague, saying that a riot is when “two or more other persons with the purpose of engaging, soon thereafter, in tumultuous or violent conduct.” “Tumultuous conduct” is rather vague, which concerns many police-reform activists. 

According to Marina Lowe of Utah’s American Civil Liberties Union, “ ‘Tumultuous’ can often be viewed in the eye of the beholder.” She believes that the “Roadway Obstruction Amendments” bill would “really makes for a problematic piece of legislation and invites for selective enforcement moving forward.” The justice policy advisor for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, William Carlson, agrees. “Marching in the streets back, even before Selma, Alabama, included blocking traffic as part of the protest.” 

Those who support the bill, such as Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon, believe the bill will prevent protestors from blocking emergency vehicles from getting to hospitals. Arbon believes that “there had to be other mitigating causes to make an arrest to keep these people off the street.” He specifically mentioned a June protest in which a Provo man was shot at from inside his vehicle by a demonstrator.

The bill was heard by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, and will next be voted on in the upcoming general session, which starts in January.