State Politics

Drivers who hit protesters blocking roads could be protected under NC House bill

Drivers who hit a protester who’s blocking the road couldn’t be sued for injuries if they “exercise due care,” under a bill that passed the N.C. House on Thursday.

House Bill 330, approved in a 67-48 vote, comes in response to protests last fall in Charlotte. Protesters upset about the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott blocked interstate highways and other roads in the city.

“These people are nuts to run in front of cars like they do … and say, ‘me and my buddy here are going to stop this two-and-a-half-ton vehicle,’” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican and a supporter of the bill. “If somebody does bump somebody, why should they be held liable?”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle, said drivers wouldn’t be allowed to deliberately run over protesters.

“This bill does not allow for the driver of a vehicle to target protesters intentionally,” he said. “It does protect individuals who are rightfully trying to drive down the road.”

Democrats said the bill raises constitutional concerns because it applies only to situations in which the person hit “is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic.”

“If you want to do something, you need to clear up the bill,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat. “It basically is plain and pure unconstitutional.”

Rep. Robert Reives, a Sanford Democrat, said the state’s current laws make the bill unnecessary.

“I don’t know in what universe a person can run out in front of a car, and they’re going to win a personal injury case in North Carolina,” said Reives, who is an attorney.

Speciale said drivers need protection, particularly if they’re trying to reach the emergency room. “I like protesting, I like stirring it up, but I do it within the confines of the law,” he said.

Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat, said the bill will likely land North Carolina on national TV again as comedians joke about “those dumb rednecks down there.”

“We all know that this is being done to make a point about protesters, and it is just going to embarrass us,” he said.

After a preliminary vote Wednesday, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin called it a “shockingly horrible and dangerous piece of legislation.”

“One of the cornerstones of American democracy is the right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate, but with this bill North Carolina Republicans are giving motorists a free pass to run over protestors without any fear of civil liability,” Goodwin said in a news release. “This legislation is antithetical to our values and risks causing bodily harm to peaceful protestors.”

Another bill prompted by the Charlotte protests, titled “Economic Terrorism,” was voted down in a committee earlier this week. It would have increased penalties on law-breaking protesters, including those who block roads, and required local governments to immediately clear protesters from roads.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter