Lawmaker Revives Bill To Toughen Freeway Protest Penalties

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota lawmaker is reviving attempts to impose tougher penalties on protesters who shut down freeways.

This comes after controversial protests this year shut down highways, light rail lines and airport entrances in the wake of several controversial police shootings of black men — primarily Philando Castile and Jamar Clark.

Read More: First 3 Defendants In I-94 Protest Plead Guilty; No Jail Time

The protest bill was one of the most heated of the 2017 legislature, but it never made it to the finish line.

interstate 94 protest Lawmaker Revives Bill To Toughen Freeway Protest Penalties

Protesterss on Interstate 94 after the officers involved in Jamar Clark’s fatal shooting were not charged by a grand jury (credit: CBS)

Now it’s back, and it could be one of the first votes lawmakers take next year.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, who is the son of a police officer, says the tactic is dangerous to police and public safety.

“We need to follow the law. If you break the law and block a freeway, you need to go to jail,” Zerwas said.

He wants to increase the penalty for blocking a freeway, a light rail line or an airport entrance.

His bill makes the crime a gross misdemeanor, carrying a $3,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

But even then, it might not be a deterrent.

rep nick zerwas Lawmaker Revives Bill To Toughen Freeway Protest Penalties

Rep. Nick Zerwas (credit: CBS)

Protesters on trial for blocking freeways and causing a public disturbance say it’s their constitutional right — similar to the Civil Rights Movement.

Elise Sommers, a protester who was arrested for her actions shutting down an interstate highway during demonstrations after the police shooting of Philando Castile, says she vows to keep doing it — whatever the penalty.

“I am really, really disturbed and troubled and angry that this bill is coming back,” Sommers said. “I think it really shows how the Republican Party is trying to like crush freedom of speech.”

Debate on the bill this year was so heated, protesters shut down several capitol hearings.

Zerwas says the bill tries to balance free speech and public safety.

“You do not have a First Amendment right to put your Buick across three lanes of traffic on the center of I-94,” Zerwas said.

He says Republican leaders have promised to give his bill a vote at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session.

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