SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah state representative has proposed a bill that may exonerate drivers who accidentally kill or injure protesters while fleeing in fear for his or her life.
The legislation advanced by Republican Rep. Jon Hawkins Tuesday would also make obstructing traffic during a riot into a third-degree felony.
The bill applies to drivers fleeing from a riot “under a reasonable belief” that he or she is in danger of serious injury or death, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. The motorist must also be taking “due care” at the time, the lawmaker’s bill said.
State statute considers a riot to be a group of people who are engaging in “tumultuous or violent conduct” that can cause public alarm. Defense attorney Mark Moffat told lawmakers that a broad interpretation of this statute could encompass almost any protest.
“They often involve hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individuals who are marching down the street in protest of a particular event that occurred in our community or nationally,” Moffat said. “Every single one of those people could be charged with a felony.”
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and civil liberty advocates are all opposing the measure. Members of those groups also said the law could criminalize one of the defining features of protesting.
“Marching in the streets back even before Selma, Alabama, included blocking traffic as part of the protest,” said William Carlson, chief criminal justice policy adviser for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
Carlson said the proposed criminal defense for motorists that injure protesters calls to mind the deadly car attack that occurred during the 2017 protests in Charlottesville. Prosecuting the driver who plowed his car into a crowd of protesters would be much more difficult under the provisions that Hawkins wants to enact, Carlson said.
Proponents of the new law said it would protect against violence from mobs.
“We respect the right of the people to peacefully assemble,” Hawkins told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, which voted in support of the bill. “That’s not what we’re trying to change here in this bill. When that peaceable assembly becomes a violent assembly, that’s what we’re trying to determine and to enhance the penalties on.”