Utah lawmakers are moving forward on a bill that would increase criminal penalties for obstructing traffic during a riot and create legal protections for drivers who injure or kill someone while fleeing.

The bill was discussed Tuesday during a Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee meeting. It would make “the obstruction of traffic during a riot a third-degree felony and, under certain circumstances, absolves motor vehicle operators from criminal liability for injuries and death caused as a result of fleeing from a riot.”

The legislation comes months after protests in Utah and throughout the country over police violence and perceived racism in law enforcement. Its sponsor, Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, said it was inspired by “situations around the country that have happened where a person has been detained and pretty much immediately released and gone on to commit some other crimes during a riot.”

“And so what we’d like to do is increase the penalty so that a person is detained for a longer period of time to get them off the street during a riot,” Hawkins told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Hawkins emphasized that the legislation is targeted toward riots, not protests. According to Utah Code, an individual is guilty of a riot if “simultaneously with two or more other individuals, the individual knowingly or recklessly engages in tumultuous or violent conduct that creates a substantial risk of causing public alarm.”

“We respect the right of the people to peacefully assemble,” the Republican lawmaker said. “That’s not what we’re trying to change here in this bill. When that peaceful assembly becomes a violent assembly, that’s what we’re trying to determine and enhance the penalties on, because then it starts to endanger society.”

Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon spoke in favor of the bill and said he observed protests in Portland over the summer where “you had fire engines and ambulances and police cars responding to 911 calls of people being shot or severely injured, they could not get through.”

“The penalty up in Portland with blocking traffic was so minor; it was an infraction,” said Arbon. “And so there had to be other mitigating causes to make an arrest to keep these people off the street.”

Arbon referenced an incident in June when demonstrators blocked an intersection in Provo and a man brandished a firearm and fired rounds into a vehicle that had driven through a line of protesters.

Under Utah’s current riot laws, it is a class B misdemeanor to unlawfully detain someone and an infraction to obstruct roadways or sidewalks, according to William Carlson of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which opposes the bill.

“To add this offense to the list of felonies would be to place it alongside possessing a weapon or causing substantial property damage or injury,” Carlson told the committee. “And obstructing traffic as the part of a protest is part of America’s tradition of protest.”

Carlson said the bill “will criminalize that activity as long as a prosecutor can show beyond a reasonable doubt that people were engaged in ‘tumultuous activity.’ ”

“I’m in an unusual position today where, as a prosecutor, I’m asking you not to create a new felony,” he said.

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the language in Utah’s riot laws is “inherently vague,” adding that the enhancement of criminal penalties “really makes for a problematic piece of legislation and invites for selective enforcement moving forward.”

“ ‘Tumultuous’ can often be viewed in the eye of the beholder,” Lowe said. “And when it comes to protests, we’ve seen even just in the past few months that protests are not partisan, they’re not one side or the other. Whether it be protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter or protesting mask mandates, people of all walks of life come out on the streets in order to protest when they feel like their rights have been compromised and when they have grievances against the government.”

The committee approved the bill and lawmakers will consider it further during the upcoming general session.

The committee also approved a bill that would require that a person arrested for rioting appear before a magistrate before being released.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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