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Legislation To Make It A Felony To Obstruct Traffic Is Short-Sighted, Unnecessary

Posted: January 22, 2015|Category: Free Speech

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The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island issued the following statement in response to the Senate introduction of a bill that would make it a felony to “loiter” on a highway, causing a “distraction” or “delay” of motorists.

“Legislation introduced by Senator Raptakis today, ostensibly to deal with protesters creating a public safety hazard by blocking roadways, is both short-sighted and unnecessary. The bill, S-129, would make it a felony to cause the ‘interruption, obstruction, distraction, or delay of any motorist,’ punishable by between one and three years in prison for a first offense. On its face, this legislation is unnecessary because there are already statutes under which individuals can be charged for this conduct, as happened to several protesters involved in the I-95 demonstration in November.

“Apparently feeling that the punishment isn’t severe enough, the Senator would like to give these mostly young people a felony record, potentially impacting severely their future employment, housing and other opportunities for the rest of their lives. The introduction of the bill this week is particularly ironic, considering that we just celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose historic Selma-to-Montgomery march had to have been one of the country’s greatest “obstruction, distraction or delay” of motorists ever. Do we really want to reserve a prison cell for three years to hold his successor?

“The bill also has the potential to curtail the civil liberties not only of lawful protesters but also of individuals experiencing homelessness and living in poverty. The legislation’s broadly-worded and ambiguous language leaves open the possibility that individuals panhandling on sidewalks or medians – a means of survival and a legal exercise of one’s First Amendment rights – could be accused of distracting motorists and jailed under the proposed law.

“Such use of this legislation has negative consequences both for the individual charged and for our state more broadly. To charge an individual attempting to meet his or her basic needs in a legal manner with a felony is both cruel and illogical. Both the court proceedings and the subsequent incarceration of the individual are extremely costly to the state. Furthermore, because of a felony conviction’s impact on employment and housing, the charge could also lengthen bouts of homelessness, which are expensive to taxpayers.

“If Senator Raptakis’ intention is to ensure public safety, this end could better be achieved by fostering constructive dialogue between the police and marginalized communities – whether communities of color protesting unequal treatment or the homeless community securing basic needs – about collaborative solutions to the injustices they face daily. Filling the prisons even more is not the answer.”

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