In pre-filed legislation for the next legislative session, Representative C. Wesley Morgan (R-Richmond) proposes removing liability from any driver who ‘unintentionally’ hits a protester on a public street. The bill follows the automobile-related murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville led by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
According to the current version of the bill:
A motor vehicle operator may not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with the regular flow of traffic on a public street, road, or highway during a public protest, demonstration, or march for which a permit has not been granted, unless the infliction of the injury or death was intentional.
The legislation also places permanent restrictions on wearing hoods or masks within 500 feet of a protest as well as the ability to carry anything that could be considered “protective gear.”
Preemptively defending his controversial legislation, Morgan told WKYT:
“Let’s be logical human beings. What’s going to happen if a group of people starts running into moving traffic. Someone is probably going to get hurt. Well whose fault is that? Is it the person who ran into traffic or the mom that was taking the child to school and she’s on her way back home and all of a sudden a bunch of protesters run out in the middle of the road and she accidentally hits one. Should she be liable for that? I don’t think so.”
The legislation not only offers legal loopholes to any driver who hits and potentially kills a protester (placing a harsher burden of proof on prosecutors to show intent in addition to the commission of the crime itself), but simultaneously stiffens penalties for protesters.
Anyone who blocks public streets during a protest could be arrested and charged with violating the law under Morgan’s bill:
A person is guilty of obstruction of traffic if he or she obstructs or interferes with the regular flow of vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway during a public protest, demonstration, or march for which a permit has not been granted. Obstruction of traffic is a Class A misdemeanor.
Morgan’s legislation mirrors similar bills in several other conservative-leaning states seeking to restrict protesters’ free assembly First Amendment rights while easing the legal burden on those who use vehicles as weapons. Though none of these so-called “right-to-drive” bills have passed over the last year, Kentucky’s recently-flipped House could break that pattern in making it the first state to offer protections to motorists who injure or kill people.
Commenting on the bill, Kentucky ACLU program director Kate Miller said, “The purpose of bills like this one is to chill free speech, which is a protected right under the First Amendment.” She added, “And certainly you should not be entitled to hit people with your car just because you have been inconvenienced.”
Adding to that, Miller explained that state and local law enforcement already have the authority to arrest and prosecute people for obstructing traffic.
Morgan pre-filed the protester bill on October 27, 2017 for the upcoming Kentucky House legislative session. You can read the current version of the bill in its entirety here.
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