Missouri House passes penalties for protesters for blocking traffic, police ‘bill of rights’

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Protesters who block traffic — a common tactic employed in Black Lives Matter demonstrations — would be subject to criminal penalties under a bill passed by the Missouri House Tuesday.

The measure, which would also seal police disciplinary records from public view, passed the Senate in February. But the two chambers will likely head to conference after the House loaded it with amendments, including a ban on police chokeholds and a repeal of Kansas City’s requirement that officers live in the city.

Another House bill that included those two provisions was tabled in the Senate earlier Tuesday over a controversial amendment sought by Senate President Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican, to tighten regulations on video gaming machines that he says are a form of illegal gambling.

With House bills piling up in the Senate less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session, representatives on Tuesday inserted into the police and protest bill dozens of amendments ranging from criminalizing package theft to allowing the concealed carry of guns into churches.

“If you have the back of law enforcement, you know what to do, you will vote yes,” said Rep. Nick Schroer, an O’Fallon Republican.

It cleared the House by a vote of 98 to 50.

Though the numerous amendments could slow down the original bill, sponsor Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Springs Republican, said he was “very optimistic of final passage” and open to keeping some of the measures.

“Everybody wants to see something get across the finish line,” he said.

Many measures added additional protections for police. Some were aimed at reform or increased accountability in the criminal justice system. One provision would allow the state’s police oversight commission to hire more investigators. Another would give minors convicted in non-homicide crimes a chance at parole after 15 years.

But several Democrats said the amendments did not soften their opposition to the bill’s criminalizing of blocking traffic, a popular protest tactic commonly employed by those demonstrating against police brutality and disparate treatment of Black Americans.

The bill would make the crime of blocking traffic an infraction on first violation, a misdemeanor on the second and a felony on the third, which social justice groups have called an infringement on their rights to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.

The legislation does not include a controversial measure from a similar bill that would shield drivers from liability for injuring protesters who are blocking traffic.

The bill would penalize cities for cutting police budgets by more than 12% — a response to calls to “defund the police,” in favor of alternative social services that do not use force — and create a “police bill of rights” with procedural protections for officers facing disciplinary investigations. A St. Louis police commissioner said the measure could hinder the department’s ability to hold police accountable.

Eigel told The Star this year when it came to last year’s protests, he was focused on criminal behavior by protesters, such as damaging businesses, before reforming police who “are under more scrutiny and more pressure today than they have been in my memory.”

Several opponents in the House have themselves participated in Black Lives Matter protests, sometimes ones that blocked traffic, and said they worried the bill would be disproportionately enforced upon Black protesters.

“Throughout the history of America, Black progress has been met with resistance and blowback,” said Hillsdale Democratic Rep. Kevin Windham on Tuesday. “I see this proposal as part of the resistance and blowback.”

Rasheen Aldridge, a St. Louis Democrat who is a leader of an organization called Expect US that holds protests against police brutality, said the measure would not reduce such marches.

“If this bill goes into effect, I’m not going to stop protesting,” he said. “So I hope that I can continue to serve in this body when you try to get me a felony.”

Another addition to the bill would allow drivers charged with traffic violations to have their licenses suspended if they do not pay court fines and twice fail to appear in court. The proposal received bipartisan opposition from St. Louis-area lawmakers who had worked to reform traffic citations after the 2014 police brutality protests in Ferguson.

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