Calling it a knee-jerk reaction to events surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a line of people testified against proposed North Dakota legislation Friday, Jan. 20, that wouldn’t hold drivers liable for injuring or killing people who intentionally block a roadway.

As amended Friday by the House Transportation Committee, House Bill 1203 says a driver who unintentionally causes injury or death to someone intentionally obstructing traffic on a public roadway is not guilty of an offense. Similarly, a driver who, “while exercising reasonable care,” injures or kills someone intentionally obstructing traffic may not be held liable for damages under the bill.

People who testified in the nearly two-hour hearing Friday morning worried the bill would create unintended consequences. Olowaan Plain cited the example of her grandfather, who has dementia and could be hit by a driver if he’s on the road.

“I don’t want someone who maybe doesn’t like elderly people, maybe they’re in a hurry, maybe they don’t feel like stopping, to plow him down with the excuse that it was unintentional and get away with killing someone who I care about,” she said.

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, previously told Forum News Service the bill was prompted by his mother-in-law’s experience driving south of Mandan, where protesters have camped in opposition to the $3.8 billion crude oil pipeline. He said protesters were “intentionally putting themselves in danger” by demonstrating on roadways.

Rod Pagel, a Bismarck attorney, said the bill was too broad and said there are other ways to address the pipeline protests. But Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said the bill isn’t meant to deter protesting on the highway.

“What this is aimed to do is to protect people who are caught up on a roadway and are blocked by a mob and fear for their life and need to try and extricate themselves from that situation,” he said.  

Eden Stramer said the bill was unnecessary and dangerous, adding driving is a privilege and requires motorists to be attentive.

“Long after this protest has been resolved, this bill will continue to be used as the excuse of negligent drivers trying to get away with manslaughter,” she said.

Andrea Denault, legislative liaison for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, said the bill will “embolden people who want to commit a hate crime.”

Terri Wilkerson, who is from Michigan and has been living at a protest camp since late October, called for unity in a time of division over the monthslong protests.

“I strongly encourage you to move past the fear that is motivating, I believe, some of these bills and try to build bridges with each other,” she said.

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