Protesters who take to the streets in North Dakota might want to look both ways for changes in the rules of the road.
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, would protect drivers from legal consequences if they inadvertently hit, injure or kill pedestrians who are obstructing traffic.
The legislation is a direct response to the massive protests around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Kempenich said. The ongoing protests have shut down a nearby highway for months and stalled construction of a pipeline that would carry crude from the North Dakota oil patch.
"If you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue," Kempenich said. "Those motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road. … Those people didn't ask to be in this."
The legislation has drawn withering criticism from Standing Rock supporters, who worry that it could be open season for protesters on North Dakota roads.
Kempenich said he wants to shift the blame for a crash from drivers to the people who choose to protest in traffic. The legislation, he said, would not protect someone who deliberately tries to run down a protester, and it would not let drivers off the hook if they hit a jaywalker or a child chasing a ball into the street.
"This bill puts the onus on somebody who's made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm's way," he said. "You can protest all you want, but you can't protest up on a roadway. It's dangerous for everybody."
His bill is one of several floated by protest-weary North Dakota lawmakers this session. One would make it a crime for adults to wear masks. Another would allow the state to sue the federal government over the cost of policing the pipeline standoff. The protests, which have drawn thousands of people and led to hundreds of arrests, have cost North Dakota law enforcement an estimated $22 million.
"It puts people on edge," Kempenich said. "People who live out there are feeling terrorized."
The legislation has several House and Senate cosponsors but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Hwy. 1806, which passes through the Standing Rock reservation and beside the drilling site for the stalled Dakota Access Pipeline, has been closed for much of the past year as thousands of people protested the pipeline's proposed path under the Missouri River, just upstream from the reservation, and through tribal burial grounds and cultural sites.
The protests have forced North Dakotans to detour for miles. Kempenich said he worried about drivers, panicked by coming across a group of people standing in a public roadway, "if they hit the gas instead of the brake."
Under Kempenich's proposed legislation, drivers who negligently injure or kill pedestrians who are "obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street or highway" would not be liable for damages, and anyone who "unintentionally" kills or injures a pedestrian who was blocking traffic "is not guilty of an offense."
He said he plans to "soften" the language about negligent drivers — he was referring to insurance industry language, not giving a free pass to distracted drivers. He expects a hearing on his bill soon.
In Minnesota, law enforcement steps in to stop or divert traffic when protesters march onto roadways. In August 2015, a driver rolled through a Minneapolis intersection crowded with Black Lives Matter demonstrators, injuring a 16-year-old girl. The driver later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $575 fine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008