People have a right to protest peacefully under the First Amendment. However, it’s illegal to obstruct the roadway if it prevents the passing of emergency vehicles.
This month, the Texas House passed a bill that would increase criminal penalties and require jail time for people who block highways during protests if their action impedes emergency vehicles.
The legislation is a response to the protests following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer last year in Minneapolis. The House passed Bill 9 on a 90-55 vote. It now heads to the Senate, the Texas Tribune reports.
Texas, like many other states, was gripped by protests against police brutality and racial injustice for the weeks after Floyd’s killing. Multiple protestors were arrested for offenses such as damaging property or blocking highways.
In Dallas, during the fourth night of protests, hundreds of protestors were arrested on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. They were ordered to lie on the ground and police put them one by one into zip ties, the Star-Telegram reported. Police said the protestors were blocking a highway.
Former Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall later announced the Dallas Police Department would not file charges against the 600 or so protestors who police picked up on the bridge.
If HB 9 becomes law, it would make blocking a roadway a state jail felony where the offense prevents the passage of an emergency vehicle or blocks a hospital entrance.
The offense is presently a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to six months in jail. Offenders would face longer jail time if the offense becomes a felony. A state jail felony in Texas carries a punishment of up to two years in the prison system.
The Tribune noted offenders would be branded as felons, making it harder for them to secure employment and housing. The bill would require those convicted of the obstruction offense to spend at least 10 days in jail, even if they are given probation.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, told the House seconds matter in emergencies. “We all have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble under the First Amendment, but what we don’t have is a right to prevent authorized emergency vehicles that can provide life-saving care,” she said.
However, State Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat, spoke out against the bill. He said the bill differed from other Texas laws in requiring mandatory minimums of at least 10 days in jail even if the offender had no criminal history.
He noted the bill was a reaction to a protest in California last September. When two deputies were shot in their car, the sheriff’s office accused anti-police protestors of blocking the emergency room.
“We are reacting to one case out of California and changing the law in Texas because of it,” Moody said in the House. “And we’re doing it in a way that does not sync up with what we’ve been doing for years on criminal justice reform.”
The Texas House has also approved a raft of measures linked to the killing of George Floyd.
Last month, it backed three police reform measures. The bills require law enforcement agencies to tighten up their disciplinary actions against police following killings in custody, prevent officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses, and require more evidence to support undercover officer testimony.
As Dallas-based defense lawyers, we are alarmed at the notion of hitting people accused of blocking highways during demonstrations with felony charges. Demonstrations are often hectic and confusing. It can be difficult to know when people are blocking highways and impeding emergency vehicles. The danger of police arresting people who are lawfully exercising their democratic rights appears to be high.
If you have been arrested by police in or around Dallas or elsewhere in Texas, police contact our criminal defense team at (214) 720-9552.