For the second time in a week, tougher punishment for an already illegal act was passed by the House.
HF390, sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), would increase the penalty from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor for someone to intentionally interfere with or obstruct traffic exiting, entering or on a freeway or public roadway within the boundaries of a major airport.
Additionally, penalties for certain unlawful interference with transit violations, including distracting the driver from safe vehicle operation, would increase from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. Restricting passenger access to a transit vehicle would be added to the illegal acts.
The maximum penalty for a gross misdemeanor is one year in jail and $3,000 fine.
Following Tuesday’s 71-55 vote, the bill moves to the Senate where Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) is the sponsor.
House members debated the proposal for 90 minutes one week earlier, when the provision was included in the omnibus public safety and security finance bill passed by the House. An amendment to remove the provision at that time was rejected 75-49.
“The bill is travelling separate as a standalone bill really at the request of the minority party,” Zerwas said. “What we want to do is give everybody an opportunity for a straight up or down vote on this bill without any other policy or budget measures mixed in with it.”
Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) said the DFL “has not brought this idea forward. This is not something we were requesting to have come up again and again and again.”
This time the discussion took 15 minutes longer, with similar pro and con arguments put forth.
Opponents contended again, in part, that the bill’s goal is to chill free speech by silencing people who want to raise concerns of injustice, including those related to race.
And, once more, the bill’s supporters noted the change would not take away any constitutional rights to protest and that it is already illegal to protest on a freeway.
“This is language that the governor on three separate times yet this spring has indicated his willingness, his interest, in signing,” Zerwas said.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) disputed his statement.
“The governor has previously spoken about his interest in dealing with those who protest on the freeway and those who protest at the airport. He has not expressed his support for the very broad language in this bill about blockage of transit,” she said.
At a morning news conference, Gov. Mark Dayton questioned spending time on a “non-problem” when other matters — including affordable health care, increased school funding and capital investment —have yet to be finished with fewer than two weeks remaining in the 2018 session.
“They’re just appealing to their political base,” Dayton said. “… Why don’t they do the things that the people of Minnesota need them to do? I haven’t seen a protest out there for almost a year.”
Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood) said this “common sense” bill is about safety.
“This bill says if you shut down the freeway, if you shut down the airport, you should go to jail because you are endangering the lives of other people in this state,” he said. ”… It’s not a part of your First Amendment right to endanger our children and to endanger the lives of other people.”
First introduced in January 2017, the language was removed from the omnibus public safety law last May during conference committee negotiations. The bill was re-approved by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee March 15.
Protesters disrupted light-rail service at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in December 2015. Eight months later, Interstate 94 in St. Paul was blocked by people protesting the shooting of Philando Castile, a black man killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. A July 2017 protest on the same interstate followed the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer involved in the shooting.
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