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After meeting with Black Lives Matter, a Utah Republican may ditch bill that could shield drivers who accidentally kill protesters

Prosecutors, advocates are encouraging legislator to focus instead on clarifying the legal definition of a riot

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Protesters march against police brutality in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 4, 2020. A Utah state lawmaker may be backing off -- or at least revising -- his proposed bill to create a criminal defense for accidentally running over a protester.

A Utah lawmaker is in talks about reshaping a bill that would stiffen penalties for rioting in the streets and create a criminal defense for drivers who accidentally hit and kill or injure demonstrators while fleeing from a tumultuous or violent protest.

Lex Scott, leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, said Rep. Jon Hawkins on Monday expressed willingness to scrap the idea of shielding certain drivers from prosecution — a proposal that has drawn strong opposition from civil rights group, attorneys and activists.

“As someone who has been protesting for seven years peacefully, it’s hurtful. This bill is hurtful. People already try to run us over,” she remembers telling Hawkins during their conversation this week. “Giving them a bill that says, ‘Hey, if you run us over, we’re going to protect you in court,’ it emboldens people.”

Scott said the lawmaker explained that it was never his intention to enact a legal protection for vehicular manslaughter but was responding to concerns about the safety of motorists who find themselves swallowed up by a chaotic demonstration.

However, Scott said, Hawkins told her he intended to retreat from that aspect of his bill. Hawkins did not grant a request for an interview for this story.

The legislation as initially written would have eliminated the criminal responsibility of a driver who accidentally struck a protester while trying to escape from a riot. In order to qualify for the legal protection, the driver would also have to be in reasonable fear for his or her life and “exercising due care” at the time of the death or injury. Also under Hawkins’ legislation, obstructing traffic during a riot would be a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

“This really creates a recipe for disaster,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday of the initial bill language, “because it starts to criminalize what would otherwise be protected constitutional rights of peaceful protesters.”

But Gill, who said his office has also been working with Hawkins on the proposal, said he’s appreciated the lawmaker’s willingness to reconsider aspects of the bill that advocates and attorneys have found troubling.

Gill said his office has suggested that Hawkins instead focus on clarifying the legal definition of a riot so that peaceful demonstrations can continue undisturbed, but people can’t use protests as an excuse for criminal activity. Everyone engaged in the talks so far agrees that the ultimate goal is to balance free speech with public safety, he said.

Scott said she also agrees that state lawmakers should refine what’s legally considered a riot in Utah but would defer to the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah about how to word those changes.

In the eyes of some people, she said, “anytime there’s Black people and they do anything, it’s a riot.”

A legislative committee last month voted in support of Hawkins’ initial version of the bill, even though prosecutors and defense attorneys united in opposition to it.

A representative of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office objected to attaching hefty criminal penalties to marching in the streets, when that’s one of the defining features of American protest. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and defense attorneys stressed that Utah’s legal definition of a riot is open to broad interpretation and could encompass almost any demonstration.

State statute considers a riot to be a gathering of people who are engaging in “tumultuous or violent conduct” that can cause public alarm. Based on this definition, Gill slapped several people with felony rioting charges for a July demonstration against police violence, during which protesters poured red paint on the street and broke the windows of the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office building.

An independent prosecutor later downgraded the charges and removed the felony rioting counts.

The district attorney’s office has also expressed concern about creating legal protections for drivers who strike and kill or hurt protesters during a riot, referring back to the Charlottesville, Va., anti-racist rally where a motorist plowed into a group of people and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

It would’ve been much more challenging to prosecute the driver in that case with the provisions that Hawkins wanted to enact, said William Carlson, chief criminal justice policy adviser for the district attorney’s office.

Attorneys during the hearing also pointed out that state and local laws already prohibit pedestrians from blocking traffic.

Proponents of the bill referred back to the Provo protest this summer where someone shot an SUV driver who was speeding through a crowd of demonstrators. One of the protesters is facing an attempted aggravated murder charge in connection with the shooting.

But while she’s glad Hawkins seems open to reconsidering his bill, Scott said she’s disheartened by the way that some lawmakers are responding to the wave of anti-racist demonstrations that swept the nation this year.

“The fact that lawmakers are focusing more on how to police protesters than on reforming the police is the problem,” she said. “And this is why we protest.”

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