O’FALLON, Mo. – As protests continue in the St. Louis region following the Stockley verdict, law enforcement and demonstrators continue clashing in the streets. All in all, authorities have made more than 300 arrests at demonstrations over the Sept. 15 acquittal of former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley, whom a judge found not guilty in the shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith following a high-speed chase in 2011.
Earlier this week, police officers reportedly arrested 143 people after the protests blocked traffic on a highway not far from downtown St. Louis. Protesters gathered Tuesday evening and marched to Interstate 64, where some of those present walked onto the roadway and blocked traffic for several minutes.
And in light of that event, one Missouri State Representative announced his intention to file a bill in December for the 2018 legislative session to increase the criminal penalties on individuals who intentionally impede vehicle traffic on roadways without a permit.
Rep. Nick Schroer says that penalties need to be more, but says he is still working to figure out what the penalty enhancements should be.
The question over what constitutes a legal protest has been debated in recent years, most notably in 2014 following the events in Ferguson and again in 2015 when protests took place at the University of Missouri over allegations of racial discrimination.
And while the First Amendment grants U.S. citizens the right to peaceably assemble, may argue that right is not an absolute.
Schroer notes that courts throughout the nation have held that the First Amendment does not allow for the intentional disruption of traffic flow that, as such, could present a clear and present danger to the public.
Schroer stated that his goal by filing this bill is simply to preserve the First Amendment rights of those partaking in peaceful protests or assemblies while protecting the safety and well-being of all those on our roadways.
“Since 2014, we have witnessed the stoppage of interstate and intrastate commerce at the hands of protestors bringing traffic to a halt on our highways. We have witnessed individuals stopped just short of making it to the hospital in times of crisis due to hecklers impeding traffic. We have also seen scared families frantically flee when protestors damage their vehicles, resulting in many being placed in imminent danger,” Schroer said in a statement Wednesday. “Our courts have clearly stated that the First Amendment does not give you a free pass to impede traffic or endanger the general public. Those who want to trample on the rights of law abiding citizens must face more than just a mere slap on the wrist, especially when you are placing yourself and many others at risk of danger or death.”
Schroer is adamant that he will support every citizen’s constitutional right to legally protest, but says he will also protect the citizens who find their liberty being trampled by unlawful protests.
The Republican notes that when protests block the flow of traffic, particularly in the late evening hours or nighttime, visibility is lowered, putting both the protesters, drivers, and passengers at an increased risk.
He also discussed the potential issues that blocking the flow of traffic could present in emergency situations, when seconds could mean life or death.
A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, failed to advance in the Missouri House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee this past March. That bill would have advanced the penalties for unlawful traffic interference to the Class A misdemeanor for the first offense, and subsequent violations would be a Class E felony. If committed on an interstate, the offense would be charged as a Class E felony.
Marshall’s bill drew the criticism of several activist groups, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as some fellow legislators, such as freshman Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis. Franks, who became a legislator after becoming a voice for protest following Ferguson, argued that the protests are meant to be disruptive in order to make their voices heard.
Franks was reportedly one of the people arrested Tuesday night, and did not approve of Schroer’s proposed legislation for the next legislative session, but tweeted that the two legislators could agree to disagree.
Put more folks in jail and into the system but we can agree to disagree!
— Bruce Franks Jr (@brucefranksjr) October 5, 2017
Schroer will file his bill as soon as he is able, with the pre-filing of bills starting on Dec. 1. The 2018 session begins January 3.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.