NC lawmakers criticize bill addressing motorists who drive through protesters

A pickup truck drives through a group of protesters in Durham during a May Day protest (CBS North Carolina)

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The death of a Virginia woman and injuries of nearly two-dozen others after a man drove through a crowd of protesters is putting a controversial bill in North Carolina back in the spotlight.

The North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 330 in April by a vote of 67-48. The bill’s sponsors said it is designed to protect drivers from protesters who block public roads. The vote was split across party lines, with only one Democrat in support and three Republicans against.

Read House Bill 330

North Carolina is one of four states with contributory negligence laws, which means drivers found to be even partially responsible for an accident can’t collect in a lawsuit. Critics of House Bill 330 said it absolves drivers of liability when protests and demonstrations are involved.

“It was for the sole purpose of telling protesters that we’re not going to protect you, whatever the situation is. You’re going to have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you did not contribute to your own injuries,” Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham) said.

“You’ve got a right to protest. We have that protection under the Constitution. You don’t have the right to run me down because I’m protesting.”

Michaux marched on Washington and in Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr. He hosted King in his home during the civil rights leader’s trips to the Triangle, and Michaux said Saturday’s events would have made King cry.

The bill provides liability immunity for drivers who hit protesters, as long as the protester does not have a permit to be in the street, and if the driver’s actions leading to injury were not “wanton” or “willful.”

The North Carolina Senate has not taken any action on the bill, which Gov. Roy Cooper said he would veto. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon said there are currently no plans to move forward with the driver immunity bill.

Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Democrat) took to Twitter on Saturday evening to comment on the violence in Charlotteville and House Bill 330, tweeting:

I condemn the hatred, evil, racism, and white supremacist terrorism that occured today in #Charlottesville.
Given today’s actions in #Charlottesville, HB330 that allows NCians to drive through protesters without being sued should die in committee.

He made additional posts on Facebook on Monday and Tuesday which critiqued the bill.

“My mind immediately went back to that bill, House Bill 330, that was passed back in the spring. I knew it had come over to the Senate, and I immediately said you know, we don’t need to touch this right now, or frankly, ever,” Woodard said Wednesday.

“It’s not good legislation, it is unnecessary, and it clearly was drafted for political posturing and for messaging.”

Woodard said the bill creates more problems than protections, and is an attempt to limit free speech and assembly.

The bill’s sponsors, Republicans Justin Burr of Stanly County and Chris Millis of Pender County, issued a joint written statement which denounced the violence and racism in Charlottesville. The representatives said the actions are antithetical to the rights of free speech and peaceful demonstrations.

Burr and Millis said in the statement:

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. 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. The one-page bill is tightly tailored to protect innocent drivers exercising due care from individuals from blocking a public street or highway while respecting the right to protest according to the 1st Amendment.

Woodard disputed that defense of the bill.

“I believe it is not tightly tailored at all. Who’s interpreting willful, wanton, some of the words that they use in their bill? It’s just a couple of paragraphs long. To the contrary, it’s not tightly tailored and it’s completely unnecessary,” he said.

Woodard said legislators in several states proposed similar bills following protests of President Trump’s inauguration, including the Women’s March and the Science March.

House Bill 330 also has ties to protests in Charlotte after the September 20 fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

Demonstrators blocked traffic on roads including Interstate 277. One group of protesters looted an 18-wheeler on the highway and set fire to its contents. Investigators determined the shooting of the African-American Scott by an African-American officer was justified.

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