COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri protesters who repeatedly block traffic without permission could face felony charges under a bill given first-round approval in the state Senate on Tuesday.
The measure follows protests last summer in the St. Louis area and across the country over the death of George Floyd, including demonstrations that blocked traffic on major highways.
The tactic is meant to cause disruptions as a way to draw attention to racial injustice, but it also spurred backlash among Republican lawmakers in Missouri.
Republican critics of the protest method have argued it might block ambulances and puts demonstrators at risk of being hit by cars.
“We’ve seen instances of individuals moving onto heavily traveled roadways putting themselves, motorists, bystanders [and] a number of folks in imminent physical danger,” bill sponsor Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said. “We’re trying to discourage that behavior, not because we don’t want folks to exercise their freedom of speech, but freedom of speech cannot be done at the personal safety and expense of another.”
Debate on the bill began Monday and continued through the night into Tuesday morning. Lawmakers softened penalties for blocking traffic after hours of negotiation between Republicans and Democrats.
Under the latest version of the bill, blocking traffic without permission would first be punished as an infraction. The second offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. A third offense would be a felony, and violators would face up to four years in prison.Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, argued for lighter penalties, especially for first-time protesters who join demonstrations spontaneously and might not realize the risks involved with blocking traffic.
“Some protests have changed the entire country for the better,” May said. “If we can create a pathway for people and let them know this is a way to do this where we can all be safe…I think it would be better.”
The legislation also targets calls to “defund the police” by racial justice advocates. Private citizens could sue Missouri cities and other municipalities that decrease funding for police agencies by more than 12% compared to other departments if the bill becomes law.
Confederate statues and other monuments would get greater protection under the bill, too. The measure would make damaging public monuments a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail for the first offense and up to four years in prison if the memorial is worth at least $750. The punishment goes up to as much as seven years in prison for monuments worth $5,000 or more.
The legislation also would require offenders who commit dangerous felonies against police, firefighters or other first responders to serve their full sentence without the opportunity for probation.
Another provision sets up guidelines for internal reviews of possible police misconduct, which is aimed at ensuring the process is fair to the officers under investigation.
The bill needs another vote of approval in the state Senate before it can go to the GOP-led House for consideration.