Oklahoma Gives Criminal Immunity To Drivers Who ‘Unintentionally’ Run Over Protesters

Demonstrators march and protest near the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 2020. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed state Republicans’ bill on Wednesday evening that will protect drivers who run over protesters from criminal and civil liability.

This comes amid mass demonstrations against anti-Black police brutality.

The bill, H.B. 1674, seeks to crack down on protests that obstruct traffic by granting drivers immunity and imposing harsher punishments on protesters who make it “unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous” for drivers to pass.

“We are sending a message today in Oklahoma that rioters who threaten law abiding citizens’ safety will not be tolerated,” Stitt said in a statement. “I remain unequivocally committed to protecting every Oklahoman’s First Amendment right to peacefully protest as well as their right to feel safe in their community.”

The injury or death of the individual occurred while the motor vehicle operator was fleeing from a riot, as defined in Section 1311 of Title 21 of the Oklahoma Statutes, under a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death; and 2. The motor vehicle operator exercised due care at the time of the death or injury.

Under the new law, a driver who “unintentionally” causes injury or death while “fleeing from a riot […] under a reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary to protect the motor vehicle operator from serious injury or death” will not be criminally or civilly liable for that injury or death as long as the driver was exercising “due care at the time.”

ACLU Oklahoma policy director Nicole McAfee declared on Thursday that in signing the bill into law, Stitt “has decided to stand on the wrong side of history and threaten one of the most fundamental rights of our democracy.”

“The ACLU of Oklahoma along with organizers on the ground are in a fight to end the systemic violence inflicted on our Black and Brown communities, and our government’s escalating attacks on protests against racism and police brutality should concern everyone,” McAfee said in a statement. “We are in serious conversations with partners on our next steps to protect Oklahomans’ right to free speech.”

Rep. Kevin McDugle (R), one of the authors of the bill, argued in February that “it’s not going to be a peaceful protest if you’re impeding the freedom of others.”

McDugle (R) and his co-author of the bill, Sen. Rob Standridge (R), have cited an incident in Tulsa last summer in which a truck driver rammed his vehicle through a crowd of protesters and claimed afterwards that he and his family had been fearing for their lives at the time. The driver was not criminally charged.

Three people were injured in the incident, including a man who became paralyzed.

Oklahoma’s protections for drivers who run over protesters go further than those found in Florida’s “anti-riot” law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) last week, which shields drivers who run over protesters from getting sued, but not from criminal charges.

Republicans in other states, including Missouri, Iowa, Tennessee, and Washington are pushing similar driver immunities in what appears to be a growing wave of anti-protest legislation by the GOP in response to nationwide protests against police killings of Black Americans.

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