Bill proposes harsher penalties for protests on Washington freeways

Authorities gathered in front of parked cars on I-5 to block the roadway for a protest on Jan. 6, 2024. (KOMO News)

HB 2348, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-D2) and Rep. David Hackney (D-D11), aims to reprimand individuals who deliberately impede traffic by walking, standing, or sitting on a highway. If passed, this bill would classify such actions as a gross misdemeanor.

The proposal aims to elevate the offense to a felony in cases where the individual organizing a protest is involved in blocking the highway.

Barkis expressed his concern about the ongoing civil disruption, emphasizing the importance of taking action to put an end to it. He firmly believed that allowing such behavior to continue would only empower those responsible and encourage them to repeat their actions.

After witnessing an ambulance and innocent drivers getting caught up in the recent protest, Barkis felt compelled to draft the legislation.

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“I firmly believe that similar incidents will occur again, although not necessarily in downtown Seattle. It could happen in Tacoma or Olympia,” he expressed.

“Law enforcement must be equipped with the necessary resources, and prosecutors must be empowered to take legal action. It is imperative that we utilize our criminal justice system effectively and send a strong message to those responsible: we will not tolerate the state of Washington being overwhelmed in this way.”

A collective of demonstrators is pursuing legal action against the state of Washington and the city of Seattle, asserting that inadequate measures were taken to safeguard protesters involved in a 2020 demonstration where a car struck individuals on I-5.

On July 4, 2020, a driver, Dawit Kelete, ascended an off-ramp and proceeded onto the highway, unaware of protesters gathered on I-5 in downtown Seattle. Tragically, the collision resulted in the death of Summer Taylor and inflicted serious injuries upon Diaz Love.

In 2023, Kelete was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for his role in the incident. The ongoing lawsuit alleges that both the state and city authorities failed to implement sufficient protective measures during the demonstration, thereby contributing to the tragic outcome. This legal action underscores the persistent debate surrounding the responsibilities of local authorities in ensuring the safety of public protests.

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