State Politics

Protections for drivers who hit protesters? ‘No plans’ to move bill, NC lawmaker says

Drivers who hit protesters in the street aren’t likely to get help from state lawmakers this year.

The state House of Representatives approved legislation, House Bill 330, that aims to give civil and criminal immunity to motorists who unintentionally hit people in the middle of the street. Drivers would be protected if they exercise “due care” in navigating the street – but still hit protestors.

The bill, which hasn’t been considered by the Senate, drew renewed attention over the weekend. A 20-year-old man is accused of driving his car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville on Saturday, prompting some to call for the bill to be dropped.

The bill would likely have to go through the Senate Rules and Operations Committee before going to the Senate floor and then, if passed, to the governor. State Sen. Bill Rabon, the committee’s chairman, released a statement on Monday signaling the bill has no traction.

“As far as I can recall, none of the House sponsors have asked for this bill to be heard in the Senate, and there are no plans to move it forward,” said Rabon, a Republican from Southport. He released the statement through Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger. Carver said Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Gov. Roy Cooper would veto the bill if the Senate does pass it, said Ford Porter, a Cooper spokesman.

“The governor does not think we should be passing laws that try to protect people who drive cars into protests,” Porter said. Cooper is a Democrat.

Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat, called on Republican leadership to take action so the bill can’t reach Cooper’s desk.

“Senate can kill the bill with a vote for an unfavorable report,” Meyer tweeted Monday afternoon. “Actions speak louder than words.”

North Carolina is one of several states that has introduced legislation to protect drivers from legal battles with protesters, and HB 330 has been controversial since its inception.

Republican state Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis filed the bill in response to protests in Charlotte last fall, when some residents who were upset about the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott blocked interstate highways and other roads in the city.

The bill wouldn’t apply to drivers who willfully hit protesters, or to drivers hitting protesters who are legally allowed through a permit to occupy the street.

The state House approved the bill in a 67-48 vote in April. Democrats opposed the move, saying it’s unconstitutional and that existing laws make it unnecessary. But many Republicans hoped to protect commuters from what they described as frivolous lawsuits.

“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,’” Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican and a supporter of the bill, said at the time. “If somebody does bump somebody, why should they be held liable?”

It’s unclear if the bill’s sponsors will work for its passage. Burr and Millis released a joint statement shortly after noon on Monday, arguing that their bill shouldn’t be cast as an attempt to protect drivers like the 20-year-old charged with second-degree murder.

“It is intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend,” the statement says.

“Any individual who committed a deliberate or willful act, such as what happened this weekend in Charlottesville, would face appropriately severe criminal and civil liabilities,” it continues.

“We denounce the violence, racism, and acts displayed in Charlottesville that run antithetical to American ideals of peaceful demonstration and the right to free speech. Our thoughts and prayers are with those killed and injured, their families, and our nation as we grieve the tragic events perpetuated by those that wish to divide us.”

Colin Campbell of the N.C. Insider contributed to this report

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht