Demonstrators block traffic and march past vehicles on I-35 during a protest against police violence in Austin on May 31, 2020. Police later used teargas to disperse crowds on the interstate.

Demonstrators blocked traffic and marched past vehicles on Interstate 35 in Austin last year during a protest against police violence. Under a Texas House bill, obstructing roadways in a way that hinders emergency vehicles would become a felony.

Credit: Courtesy of Tamir Kalifa

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In response to nationwide protests against police brutality last year, the Texas House on Wednesday moved to raise criminal penalties and require jail time for people who obstruct a roadway if it prevents the passage of an emergency vehicle or blocks a hospital entrance.

The House initially approved House Bill 9 on a 84-60 vote, but it still needs a final vote from the full chamber before it heads to the Senate.

The in-custody murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year sparked protests across the country against police brutality and racial injustice. In Texas, recent high-profile police killings of Black and Hispanic people fueled demonstrations as well. As protests erupted across the state, some demonstrators were arrested after allegedly throwing rocks or damaging property and hundreds more were arrested for blocking highways.

After an unruly protest at the Texas Capitol in May, the Texas Department of Public Safety spent months on an intensive investigation to identify and track down more than a dozen protesters accused of things like spray painting the building or throwing water bottles. Many of the criminal cases have since been rejected by prosecutors.

After Floyd’s murder and protests that followed, lawmakers in Texas and other states sought measures to reform police behavior and accountability. Texas’ George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform bill, has stalled in committee, but several major provisions from it have passed either the House or the Senate. But the unrest also sparked Republican-led bills that targeted protesters, including measures passed in Oklahoma and Iowa that grant immunity to drivers who hit and injure protesters in the street.

Texas police use-of-force scrutinized after George Floyd protests.

In Texas, HB 9 would make blocking a roadway a state jail felony if the offense also prevented the passage of an emergency vehicle or blocked a hospital entrance. Currently, the offense is a misdemeanor that could result in up to six months in jail. A state jail felony carries a punishment of up to two years in the Texas prison system plus a lifelong brand as a felon, making it harder to get a job and secure housing. The bill would also require those convicted to spend at least 10 days in jail, even if they are sentenced to probation.

“In an emergency, seconds matter,” state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said last week when first presenting HB 9. “We all have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble under the First Amendment, but what we don’t have is a right to prevent authorized emergency vehicles that can provide life saving care.”

The House’s priority legislation is a reaction to a protest in California last September. After two deputies were shot in their patrol car, the sheriff’s office said anti-police protesters blocked the emergency room entrance to admit them.

State Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat and co-chair of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said the bill sets itself apart from any other Texas law on mandatory minimums by requiring at least 10 days in jail even if the person had no criminal history.

“We are reacting to one case out of California and changing the law in Texas because of it,” he said on the House floor last week. “And we’re doing it in a way that does not sync up with what we’ve been doing for years on criminal justice reform.”

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