A new bill introduced by seven Pennsylvania Republican state lawmakers could force protesters arrested at demonstrations to pay for police overtime and other fees related to the action.
The bill, SB 754, has been introduced by Rep. Scott Martin of Lancaster County; his district has been the site of anti-pipeline protests aimed at the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline.
Under the terms of the bill, “a person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense.”
In other words, they could be on the hook for costs, such as police overtime, medical or emergency response, or other basic public services associated with protests. Whatever felony or misdemeanor offense the protester was convicted of would come with its own independent penalty.
Elizabeth Randol, the legislative director at the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, raised two separate concerns about the bill. First, she warned, it could end up punishing protesters for acts they didn’t commit. “People can be fined and charged, liable for costs associated with a particular crime they committed. That’s normal,” she noted. “What’s different is that it expands it … to allow the government entity, like say, a state or it could be the National Guard, it could be the police department, to determine, to leave it up to them as to whether or not they want to attempt to recover additional costs that are associated with the protest but that are not necessarily related to the specific crime that the individual was convicted of.”
She also warned that the legislation singles out protesters. After all, police and emergency personnel respond to all sorts of situations. “Public protests are very strictly protected in constitutional law,” Randol noted. “We’re all sensitive to costs and to what that does to a tax bill or the kind of stress and strain it puts on our first responders. But you can’t have those costs be borne on the back of people who are protesting and engaging in their First Amendment protected rights to speech and assembly.”
The text of the legislation is not subtle about being inspired by anti-pipeline protests. It includes a lengthy section laying out the costs associated with the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota — citing specific figures, such as the “331,721 hours of response support” by local police and National Guard and a $38.2 million price tag for local and state taxpayers.
DeSmog Blog notes that Martin has close ties to pipeline lobbyists. Prior to joining the Pennsylvania Senate, Martin worked for a firm called Community Networking Strategies. CNS is a subsidiary of the lobbying firm, McNees, Wallace & Nurick — which lobbies for Gulf Oil Ltd, Industrial Energy Consumers of Pennsylvania, and Sunoco Logistics.
Sunoco Logistics is a company working on the Mariner East 2 pipeline, another Pennsylvania-based project that demonstrators have besieged. The company involved with the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, Transco, hired the Pennsylvania Advocacy Group last year for consulting work; the Pennsylvania Advocacy Group was created in part by two lobbyists who worked at CNS.
Martin didn’t respond to a request for comment.