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New Bill Would Make Freeway Protesting Serious Crime

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- A Ramsey County judge on Thursday dismissed riot against more than 40 people who were at an interstate highway protest in St. Paul following the police shooting death of Philando Castile.

And Minnesota lawmakers are proposing new legislation to get tough on freeway protesters.

About 300 demonstrators walked onto Interstate 94 last July, blocking traffic for five hours. Forty six were arrested on charges of rioting, public nuisance and unlawful assembly.

But no one was charged with obstructing traffic, which carries a light penalty.

Representative Kathy Lohmer says the growing number of freeway protests are a threat to public safety, not only to police, but drivers and protesters too.

"You need to obey the laws of the freeway," said Lohmer, a Republican from Stillwater. "They are there for a purpose. Freeways are not really public spaces, like parks and places like that. You need a license to drive on the freeway. You can't walk on the freeway."

Lohmer's bill beefs up penalties for obstructing highways, including entrance and exit ramps. Right now, it's a misdemeanor carrying fines up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

The bill would make it a gross misdemeanor, carrying fines up to $3,000 and a year in jail.

Jordan Kushner is a civil rights attorney who represents the freeway demonstrators.

He calls the bill "very disturbing" and an effort to intimidate legal protesters.

"The proper place to protest is a way that gets people's attention," said Kushner. "These proposed laws that make it a much more serious offense to engage in non-violent peaceful protest are designed to scare people away so that they won't engage in this sort of protest."

Lohmer, whose son is a Minnesota State Patrol officer, says it's fortunate no one has been seriously hurt in freeway protests, but she's worried that could change.

"You need to obey the laws on the freeway," she said. "They are there for a purpose."

But Kushner says protesters have been able to raise the visibility of important issues, despite "the inconvenience of an additional traffic jam."

"I sympathize with people who have to get someplace," he said, "But it's the cost of living in a society where people can express themselves politically."

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