House GOP revives push to crack down on highway protests

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Republican effort to increase the penalty to a maximum of a year in jail for protesters found guilty of blocking transportation during demonstrations generated a heated debate among Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday.

Legislation was first proposed last year in response to a string of Black Lives Matter protests over officer-involved shootings that affected interstate highway traffic, the Twin Cities airport and Mall of America. But the proposal was dropped during budget negotiations last spring. The Republican-led House Public Safety committee renewed the push Thursday, passing the bill along party lines over strong opposition from Democrats.

Republicans touted the bill as a way to discourage such protests, which they said endanger public safety. Elk River Republican Rep. Nick Zerwas pointed to instances when police officers were injured at protests that spilled onto interstate highways.

“What I’m trying to do is deter — as best as we can — this kind of behavior,” Zerwas said.

Democrats called it an attempt to stifle citizens’ right to protest.

“It’s clear that because of the rhetoric all around it that it’s aimed at something different than the bill actually describes,” said Rep. Dave Pinto, a Democrat from St. Paul.

The bill would increase the maximum penalty to a “gross misdemeanor” from a misdemeanor which means that a protester found guilty would face up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

The bill will now head to a vote of the full House. Another measure allowing cities to bill protesters for police costs related to disruptions has not been introduced again this year.

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