Protester bill redux: It’s back.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, doesn’t call it a protester bill. “It’s the freeway, airport and light-rail transit obstruction bill,” he said.
However it’s described, House File 390 is a revamp of a 2017 Zerwas bill aimed at keeping people off freeways and preventing them from blocking railways and airport access points — tactics common to mass political demonstrations.
The bill was heard and passed 9-6 on March 15 by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. All Republicans present voted yes; all the committee’s Democrats voted no. The bill now heads to the full House to await a floor vote.
A very similar bill heard last year shook up a hearing room full of activists who loudly accused Republican lawmakers of racism and squelching free speech. This year those advocates stayed home.
Which is not to suggest that DFLers were happy to revisit the topic. Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, probed Zerwas’ intent in dropping the bill again this year. “It’s important for me to know where your head is at on this,” Dehn said.
“Is your intent to actually stop people from doing this, which you can do in many different ways?” Dehn asked Zerwas. “Or is your intent to scare people from not participating in these protests?”
Zerwas said his bill protects public safety and does not squelch free speech. Yet he also repeatedly remarked on the jeopardy that protesters place law enforcement and the traveling public in when they disrupt traffic by blocking freeways.
“My intent is to discourage this highly dangerous and illegal behavior and to punish those that are not deterred,” Zerwas said.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, asked Zerwas if he thinks it is OK to “put restrictions on rights in the name of public safety.”
Zerwas responded that all of the behavior his bill punishes is already illegal. HF 390 would simply increase the potential jail time (to as much as one year) and the fine (up to $3,000) that offenders face.
“You have no right to park your Buick across four lanes of I-94,” Zerwas told Becker-Finn. “If you believe you have that right, you are confused.”
After the hearing, Zerwas respond to several DFLers who had suggested stiffer penalties on freeway-blocking protesters squelches free speech. Disruption, they said, is the only way they can point public attention toward the injustices that many people in society face.
“I think it’s a stunningly obtuse argument,” Zerwas said. “We saw 100,000 protesters on Women’s Day march last year come and peacefully protest on the Capitol grounds. Not a single freeway was blocked.”
On March 16, Gov. Mark Dayton said that he supports keeping people off freeways. “That endangers public safety and endangers law enforcement,” the governor said.
However, Dayton said, last year’s bill included language that he considered too broad and an infringement on First Amendment rights. “I’ll have to see how it comes out,” Dayton said. “If they can exercise what I consider the proper discipline in the measure, I’ll look at it. I’m not committing to it.”
House File 390 isn’t quite the same bill that sparked fury in committee last year but its key ambition — making it a gross misdemeanor crime to block access to freeways, airports and light-rail transit — remains. But it is identical to a House-Senate compromise initially included in the 2017 Public Safety-Judiciary omnibus bill.
That measure got horse-traded away late last session so that Republicans could keep provisions baring undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.
Doctrine amelioration: The chair of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee wants to ameliorate the effects of the common law’s amelioration doctrine on crime bills.
“This bill clarifies that unless the Legislature specifies that this doctrine applies, it would not going forward,” said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, the committee’s chair.
The doctrine is widely recognized. It holds that when a legislature enacts new laws reducing criminal sentences — as Minnesota lawmakers did with the 2016 Drug Sentencing Reform Act — the lowered penalties apply if the case of a defendant convicted under the old law remained under appeal when the new penalties go into effect.
The doctrine was cited in the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2017 State v. Kirby ruling. Against three dissents, the court’s majority said the amelioration doctrine requires resentencing of drug convictions still under appeal as of on May 23, 2016, when the reforms when into effect.
“Had the Legislature given us a clear signal that the [reforms] did not apply to defendants with non-final convictions, we would have followed that signal,” Justice David Lillehaug wrote for the majority. “Because it did not, we apply our long-established rule of law.”
With his bill, House File 2855, Johnson hopes to send that signal.
The 12-line bill states that “a law reducing a sentence does not apply to crimes committed prior to the date on which the change takes effect unless the statute specifically states otherwise.”
“That is the extent of the bill, just to clarify what the legislative intent is in these situations,” Johnson told his committee.
The bill was not well-received by DFLers on the panel. Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said he found the bill confusing and “spiteful.” The drug reform’s intent, he said, was “to upgrade the law and make it better.”
“If we actually did that, then that is what we should be applying,” Considine said. “Not going back to something that we thought was inferior. I am really struggling with why we would want to do this.”
Johnson said his bill allows for flexibility to choose. In the future, he said, if a crime bill is passed and the two houses want reduced penalties to apply retroactively, they could specify that in a bill’s language.
Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a prosecutor, said he was skittish about adding an exception to the time-tested amelioration doctrine.
“Looking at this right now,” he said, “I am really reluctant to make changes to some pretty fundamental bedrock principles without a broader sense of how this fits into our scheme.”
The bill did not receive a vote, but it could pass into law. Johnson moved to lay the bill over for possible inclusion in a future omnibus public safety bill.
Its companion, Senate File 2756, has not yet had a hearing. Its author is Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety and Finance committee.
Nonpaternity bill: A man who learns that he is not a child’s father would have generally three years to challenge his paternity status if a bill that has cleared two House committees becomes law.
House File 1719 is authored by Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Ramsey. Its main effect would be to normalize the time limits for bringing various non-paternity actions to court.
“Generally, this puts in a limit to bring a claim at three years from when they knew or should have known they weren’t the father,” said Melinda Hugdahl, a Legal Services Advocacy Project staff attorney who helped Whelan craft the bill’s language.
Hugdahl said the bill tries to balance the need to set a reasonable time limit for bringing claims against a non-paternity’s potentially traumatizing impact, especially on older kids. “We don’t want kids to just keep getting older and older before these cases come forward,” she said.
Current law says that in cases where the presumed parents were married, the man must bring action no more than two years after discovering he is not really a child’s father, while adding, “but in no event later than three years after the child’s birth.” The bill increases that limit to three years and does away with the additional bar of the child’s age.
The bill requires a presumed father, husband, former husband or mother to file an action vacating legal paternity no more than three years after paternity first becomes reasonably suspect. Current law requires non-paternity actions to be filed within one year of paternity’s legal recognition, or no more than six months after blood or DNA evidence demonstrates non-paternity; the bill strikes both those provisions.
It also would require that an action for non-paternity be brought no more than three years after a man starts holding a child out as his own even though paternity was never confirmed. “If that person has been holding that child out for 12 years, the court can adjudicate him as the father,” Hugdahl said.
The bill also lists elements to include in a petition for non-paternity and sets the levels of proof and other factors for courts to consider. Current law specifies no procedures for making those declarations, according to House Research’s summary of Whelan’s bill.
The bill cleared the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee on March 12 in a unanimous voice vote. It was heard by the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. There it was laid it over without a vote for possible inclusion in a public safety omnibus bill.