OKLAHOMA CITY — House Republicans early Wednesday unanimously advanced a measure that would grant immunity to Oklahomans who feel threatened if they run over protesters unlawfully blocking roadways.
Critics of the measure said it was no mystery why House Republicans decided to wait until after midnight to consider the bill.
“I’m not saying that they have a right to block roads, what I’m saying is that our solution is draconian,” said state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “We’re going to permit people to run over their fellow citizens? Is this who we are as a state Oklahoma?”
A similar measure that allows protesters to be run over with blanket criminal and civil immunity to the driver also easily cleared the state Senate on Monday with unanimous Republican support.
State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, who authored House Bill 1674, said the measure is important to him personally after protests that erupted over the summer in Oklahoma and across the country.
He said it’s clear that the First Amendment gives people the right to peaceably assemble, but not to be violent. He said it can be dangerous to be inside a vehicle that is being hit with hands, bats and bricks, and Oklahomans should have the right to flee without the threat of criminal prosecution.
“Without this law, it is solely up to a (District Attorney’s) decision,” West said. “This puts something in law that if they are unlawfully blocking the road, you’re in fear of your life, you’re trying to get out of that situation, that you have some protections under the law instead of just relying on whatever that district attorney happens to be feeling like that particular day.”
State Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, said not many bills shock her anymore.
“This bill shocks me for the vast disregard of life,” she said.
On Oct. 24, 2015, Ranson said a driver plowed through a crowd of people at the Oklahoma State University Homecoming parade, killing four and injuring 46.
Ranson’s children were marching in the band and had just passed the area when a driver plowed through a nearby crowd of people. Several of those injured were her students, she said.
While the incident at the parade doesn’t fit the scenario of the bill, “the carnage could be just the same,” Ranson said.
“Being in a vehicle is protection and privilege,” she said. “Being a pedestrian is being exposed.”
Someone running over someone because they said they were in fear doesn’t change the fact that deaths or injuries could potentially result, Ranson said.
“Everybody has a right to reasonable defense of their own life,” said State Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland.
He noted during one protest in another state, protesters pulled a man from his vehicle and beat him nearly to death.
Nicole McAfee, director of advocacy for ACLU of Oklahoma, said her group is concerned about both the House and Senate measures. She said they ignore the fact that prosecutors already have a lot of discretion in those types of cases.
She said the Tulsa County district attorney over the summer opted not to charge someone who drove through protesters on a bridge even though it caused harm.
“What this does is it goes a step beyond that discretion and instead removes any accountability mechanisms whether or not prosecutors choose to use them,” she said. “And I think that an additional harm is that it has the potential to chill speech when protesters have to consider if going out to a protest puts them at risk for harm from vehicles, from drivers.”
McAfee said the measure appears very much aimed at Black Lives Matter protest movement, but, it could also allow anyone who claims they were in fear to run over people standing in the street or median protesting abortion clinics.
State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, questioned whether Senate Bill 560 would also make it legal to run over panhandlers if they made her uncomfortable while approaching her window. In her district, it is illegal for panhandlers to stand on the center median.
“This bill allows murder in place of car damage,” she said. “This bill steps far over the line of reasonableness for anyone who’s a driver.”
But state Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, who authored the Senate version, said the bill protects law-abiding citizens from those who would break the law and surround their vehicle by allowing them to make a reasonable effort to escape.
“To claim that this is unreasonable when the bill literally requires a reasonable effort is unfounded,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.