June 22, 2021 01:04

Utah Weighs Bill Protecting Motorists Who ‘Accidentally’ Harm Protesters

After a summer protests, the state of Utah is considering legislation that could limit the rights of protesters, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The proposed bill could potentially protect drivers who hit people during a protest.

Any driver that “accidentally runs over and kills or injures a protester during a riot might not face criminal charges if the motorist was fleeing in fear for his or her life at the time,” under the bill.

In order to prove that they were fleeing in fear, the motorist must be attempting to leave the scene, as well as be “under a reasonable belief” that they are “in danger of serious injury or death.”

A riot is considered any “gathering of people who are engaging in ‘tumultuous or violent conduct’ that can cause public alarm,” as defined by a Utah statute.

The bill also makes blocking traffic during a protest a “third-degree felony,” and a protester who does so could face up to a five year sentence.

“We respect the right of the people to peacefully assemble. That’s not what we’re trying to change here in this bill,” said Rep. Jon Hawkins, a Republican.

“When that peaceable assembly becomes a violent assembly, that’s what we’re trying to determine and to enhance the penalties on.”

The bill would revise existing Utah law that already prohibits street obstruction by making it a felony. This could potentially affect hundreds, even thousands of people who are taking part in a peaceful protest.

The bill will be considered during the Legislature’s next general session.

A litany of other measures relating to protests are also set to be brought before the legislature.

Republican Rep. Lee Perry proposed that violent protesters accused of “felony rioting” be kept in jail until meeting with a magistrate. This would keep certain violent protesters from being let go to early and able to immediately return to protesting, the article said.

Perry’s proposal was criticized for its ability to “create serious job consequences for arrested protesters,” as some detainees aren’t able to see magistrates for as long as 72 hours.

Those in support argued that the proposed bill would “enable police to focus on sidelining destructive protesters,” so peaceful protesters won’t be disrupted by violent or illegal protesting,

The bill comes after a summer of protests and another anti-protest bill was passed unanimously by the state senate in March, which fined and punished people who disrupted public meetings, according to a Salt Lake Tribune article.

After a summer of protests and more to come with polarizing views on the results of the presidential election, Utah could be setting a precedent on laws restricting the First Amendment right to protest.

If the bills surrounding protests are passed it could possibly lead to similar laws in other states, in a time when the country is seriously demonstrating their right to protest.

Although violence and civil disobedience are not protected under the First Amendment, laws like Utah’s that further limit the right of even peace protest have the possibility to be seen as destructive to the right to protest.

 Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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