Bill toughening penalties for protesters clears Minnesota House

Published 8:16 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ST. PAUL — A Republican-backed effort to increase penalties to a maximum of a year in jail for protesters convicted of blocking freeways, transit and airports cleared the House Tuesday, the latest attempt by the GOP-controlled Legislature to crack down on disruptive demonstrations.

The debate started last year following protests in recent years over officer-involved shootings of two black Twin Cities men that saw large demonstrations on an interstate highway, at the Mall of America and at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. Those actions are already illegal, but the bill would make them a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

The current charge is public nuisance, which calls for up to 90 days in jail time and $1,000 in fines.

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It passed largely on party lines and over Democratic objections that it would chill free speech. One Democrat voted for it; only three Republicans voted against.

The debate over protests and highway closures is likely to figure into end-of-session gamesmanship, as Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders begin hashing out deals on tax cuts, some additional spending priorities and other measures. A nearly identical measure was tossed out late last year during negotiations to finalize a $46 billion, two-year budget. And House Republicans have already passed the legislation once this year, including it as part of a supplemental spending package for state government agencies.

But while Dayton signaled earlier this year he would consider signing the legislation, he lashed out at Republicans Tuesday for voting on the measure again, accusing them of pandering to conservative voters.

“Why don’t they do things that Minnesotans want them to do?” Dayton asked, stressing there haven’t been protests recently that snarled traffic or blocked airports as in years past. “They’re dealing with the issues that are playing to their base and playing to their politics and playing to their re-elections rather than serving the needs of the people in Minnesota.”

Rep. Nick Zerwas, an Elk River Republican who authored the bill, defended the proposal.

“We want to deter that illegal and dangerous activity,” Zerwas said, later noting that police officers have been injured during freeway protests.

But some Democrats argued the increased penalty would be an unfair punishment for protesters who say they are seeking justice.

“You put them in a category with people who have committed multiple domestic assaults,” said Rep. Rena Moran, a Democrat from St. Paul.

Rep. Paul Marquart, the only Democrat to support the measure, said he disagreed a tougher punishment was unfair for disruptive demonstrations over police shootings.

“I am sick and tired of our law enforcement officers being second-guessed by our lawmakers here,” said Marquart, a Democrat from Dilworth. “A second of hesitation can be life or death for a law enforcement officer.”