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Federal judge lowers shield for motorists who unintentionally injure, kill rioters

HB 1674 was pushed through the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature after the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year.

(CN) — Five days before the effective date of a law that would shield motorists who unintentionally injure or kill street rioters, an Oklahoma City federal judge imposed an injunction Wednesday evening.

U.S. District Judge Robin Cauthron — an appointee of President George H.W. Bush — ruled that provisions against street obstructions in House Bill 1674 likely violate free speech rights under the First Amendment and are likely unconstitutionally vague.

HB 1674 was signed into law in April by Republican Governor Kevin Stitt and was comfortably passed by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature in the wake of last summer’s protests against the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The law protects motorists who “unintentionally” injure or kill rioters as long as they have “a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death.” Motorists who “exercise due care” at the time of injury or death are also protected.

The law defines a rioter as a person engaging in “any murder, maiming, robbery, rape or arson” during civil unrest. The law also imposes $5,000 in penalties against individuals who obstruct roadways and up to one year in state prison — a misdemeanor — plus up to $50,000 in penalties for organizations that conspire to obstruct roadways during a riot.

The Oklahoma State Conference of the NAACP sued the state on Aug. 30, arguing the law’s vagueness will impose a chilling effect on its political speech and organization of activities. Judge Cauthron seemingly agreed, rejecting the state’s argument that the organization-liability provision only targets conspiracy and rioting.

“Defendants’ arguments on conduct within reach of the organizational liability provision requires applying limitations to the statute that simply do not exist in the text,” the 15-page opinion states. “In reality, as demonstrated by plaintiff, the challenged provision will have a chilling effect on plaintiff’s protected speech activities.”

Judge Cauthron says Oklahoma failed to persuade her the street obstruction provision applies only to activities relating to a riot, writing that argument “is not consistent with the plain language” of HB 1674.

“Plaintiff notes that the street obstruction provision reaches clearly protected actions such as approaching cars to hand out leaflets,” the opinion states. “The uncertainty of the phrase ‘reasonably inconvenient’ provides an avenue to criminalize First Amendment action just because that activity may be inconvenient to someone.”

The ACLU did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment Wednesday evening. The office of Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor could not be reached for comment by phone after office hours Wednesday.

HB 1674 faced harsh criticism as it was debated in the state Legislature, with dozens of protestors interrupting proceedings in the Oklahoma House in April. Lawmakers were forced to leave the House floor after enduring several minutes of shouting.

Republican state Representative Kevin West said at the time he co-authored the bill after a motorist was surrounded by protesters while his wife and two small children were in his truck with him.

“The protesters beat at his truck and threw things at it, scaring both him and his family,” West said. “The driver was severely chastised for trying to hurt the protesters and he even faced the possibility of criminal charges for his actions in attempting to evade the protesters. This measure would clarify a motorist’s rights in a similar situation going forward.”

Democrats responded that protesters were also injured during the protests, citing a person who fell from an interstate highway in Tulsa on May 31 and sustaining neck and back injuries.

The judge was careful to note her preliminary injunction is not a final ruling and that she “finds the effective date of HB 1674 should be delayed pending development of a full record.”

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