Anyone convicted of crimes related to a public protest would be responsible for paying any police, fire and emergency medical costs associated with the event under a new bill introduced by state Sen. Scott Martin.
The Lancaster County Republican has said he wants to deter potentially violent and destructive protests of a proposed natural gas pipeline in the county — and to ensure that emergency response costs paid by local or state government are recouped.
But Martin’s bill would also apply more broadly to an array of public demonstrations in the state.
If passed, it would impact any events — from small public speeches to massive disturbances like the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, just last week — in which any person was charged and eventually convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.
“If your goal is to cause harm to individuals or property, there's a price you're going to have to pay for that,” said Martin, a freshman legislator from Martic Township.
Ahead of the expected protests surrounding the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project, a lawmaker…
Martin originally floated the idea in May after he hosted a conference call discussion between local officials and their North Dakota counterparts who handled the demonstrations surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy last year.
At that time, Martin said the goal of the legislation was to avoid putting taxpayers on the hook for something similar to the $38 million in costs that North Dakota government accrued.
Local activists opposed to the pipeline immediately voiced a negative reaction to the bill, and it was one of several topics that derailed a town hall meeting that Martin co-hosted around the same time.
“I was hoping he had maybe given up on that,” Mark Clatterbuck, a Martic Township resident and a leader of the group Lancaster Against Pipelines, said Friday.
Clatterbuck said Martin invited him and other members of his group to meet privately earlier this summer to discuss the language of the bill, but Clatterbuck said he declined because he preferred Martin have a public meeting on the subject.
Martin said he spent the recent months trying to “strike a balance” between first amendment rights and holding people accountable.
The primary change since he first offered the idea is that the bill does not target organizers of the protests, just anyone who is convicted of a crime.
“I could see why it would be troubling to have the organizers responsible because obviously you can have a peaceful rally and have two people show up and intend to do something more than that and cause trouble,” Martin said.
And “trouble” under the current version of the bill includes everything from destructive felonies to nonviolent misdemeanors.
That’s concerning to people like Clatterbuck, who was among a group of seven people who were charged with misdemeanor trespassing while protesting the pipeline in January 2015. The charges were later dropped to summary offenses, which would not be subject to Martin’s proposed law.
In a separate incident, Clatterbuck faced charges, which were eventually dropped completely, that accused him of disturbing the work on a pipeline in Drumore Township.
“That highlights the real danger of this bill,” he said. “Another day or another judge, those charges might have stuck.”
If the bill moves forward, it will also likely be met with questions of constitutionality, said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania
Randol said even though the bill does not target organizers, it attempts to make some people liable for a wide array of emergency response costs, therefore unconstitutionally making a few people responsible for the actions of potentially many others.
“It’s a question of what that specific person would be responsible for,” Randol said.
She said it would also have a “chilling effect” on the right to free speech and assembly.
What the bill says
In Martin’s bill, a “demonstration” is defined as “a public assembly, a meeting or gathering, a rally or protest event, a political rally or event, a demonstration, speech making, marching, the holding of vigils or religious services, and all other like forms of conduct the primary purpose of which is expressive activity or the communication or expression of views or grievances, which has the effect, intent or propensity to draw a crowd or onlookers.”
Upon a person’s conviction of a crime related to a demonstration, a judge would order the person to pay the “reasonable costs” of police and fire response, emergency medical services or emergency preparedness response.
Martin said the courts would determine how to break down the costs.
And he acknowledged that could get complicated if something occurred similar to the recent Charlottesville incident, where multiple people could be charged and, under Martin’s plan, be found responsible for paying the government’s response costs.
The legislation, titled Senate Bill 754, was referred to the Senate State Government Committee, where Martin is hoping it will be discussed sometime this fall. It has six other co-sponsors, all Republicans, including President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.