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Rep. Kathy Lohmer's push to stiffen penalties for protesting on the freeway

"There are better ways for protesters to get their message out than trespassing onto our freeways," says the Stillwater Republican.

"There are better ways for protesters to get their message out than trespassing onto our freeways," says the Stillwater Republican.

Rep. Kathy Lohmer (R-Stillwater) watched in disbelief in November 2015 as Black Lives Matter demonstrators shut down I-94 in Minneapolis in the wake of Jamar Clark's fatal shooting.

The legislator's ire was compounded last summer when hundreds of protesters closed down I-94 in St. Paul. The demonstration, spurred by the police shooting death of Philando Castile, snarled traffic for five hours. 

Nearly 50 people were arrested on charges of public nuisance, rioting, and unlawful assembly in the latter incident. A Ramsey County judge would eventually dismiss most of the charges.

That was more than enough for Lohmer. She's introduced a bill that would toughen penalties for taking protests to the freeway.

Current state statute says obstructing "any highway" is a misdemeanor, carrying fines up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.  

Lohmer's legislation for anyone "intentionally" obstructing freeway traffic, which includes ramps, would be a gross misdemeanor. These more serious crimes are punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $3,000, or both.  

Lohmer "would at least hope" harsher penalties would serve as deterrents, making demonstrators "think twice" before staging a protest on highways or their access roads.  

"This isn't just a matter of inconvenience. It's a public safety issue," she says. "Ambulances can't get through. A person driving to the airport to catch a flight to go see their dying mother out-of-state misses their plane. When people are out on the freeways protesting, they put their own safety at risk, that of drivers, and law enforcement officials as well. 

"I'm all for people's right to protest. But there are better ways to do it than on our freeways."

Among Lohmer's "better ways" are choosing to picket outside the governor's mansion or government buildings.

But a few hundred boisterous citizens squirreled away on a Summit Avenue sidewalk doesn't pack the kind of umbrage the same crowd does by paralyzing a major transportation artery. Freeway demonstrations are as equally about free speech as they are negating society's ability to ignore controversial issues of the day. They force everyone to stop and look at what's going on in the larger context, discomfort and inconvenience be damned.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that. He used U.S. Route 80 from Montgomery to Selma in the 1960s.

King's tactics were upheld by Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson Jr., who opined, "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups, and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways."

But Lohmer thinks freeway protests have actually worked against those demonstrating.

"They've turned people off to their causes, not gotten them more support," she says. "They've had the reverse effect by just making people mad." 

Lohmer's bill has obviously touched a nerve. Ten other GOP legislators have attached their names as co-authors, including Speaker of the House Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River).

Zerwas is the author of a 2016 bill that stalled in committee. It would have made protesters civilly liable for law enforcement costs for refusing to disperse. 

Lohmer now will attempt to cultivate support from Democrats. 

"My sense is this will get bipartisan support," she says, "because it's a good bill that addresses an important issue that we as lawmakers should be doing something about." 

Civil rights lawyer Jordan Kushner has represented protesters arrested in freeway incidents. He begs to differ, believing stiffer penalties will do little but choke the judicial system. 

"It's going to exacerbate tensions within the court system," Kushner says. "Prosecutors will feel more pressure to get some sort of convictions, because they'll feel the crimes are more serious. Judges, who have upheld that protesting is a good thing for our society, will push back. The results will be it'll clog our system even more and won't have much of an effect on protesting.

"If people believe in something and think freeways are the best place to get their message across, they're not going to change their minds whether the penalty is a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor."