A growing trend in our protest-fevered country is the practice of demonstrators blocking traffic and preventing drivers from getting to work, parents from picking up their kids, a husband driving his pregnant wife to the hospital — any number of inconveniences from the mundane to the deadly serious.
As you might imagine, if protesters are just blocking your vehicle’s path — and nothing else — the options at your disposal aren’t many. If you can’t drive around them without hitting them or somehow reverse your car, you’re pretty much out of luck until police arrive — or unless you can convince them to let you through.
However, not all protesters who block traffic are peaceful.
A Pennsylvania state representative brought up the issue, declaring on Twitter last Saturday that if protesters ever tried to stop his car with “negative intentions,” he wouldn’t stop “under any conditions.”
We’ve all seen videos and read stories about demonstrators who got the idea in their heads that they could turn their anger toward drivers they’re inconveniencing. Maybe they didn’t like that a frustrated motorist leaned on his horn a whole bunch, and now they’re clustering at the guy’s window and yelling and starting to mess with his car. It seems a favorite alpha-dog tactic is climbing atop the roof — even confidently sitting on the hood — with the trapped driver at the wheel. Maybe a few of them decide to key or kick the side panel or slash the tires.
Here’s a clip from a motorist who said protesters against Donald Trump converged upon his vehicle and broke his windows. One guy even taunts the driver, remarking that he’s “surrounded.”
(Content warning: Strong language)
What if you’re that driver — and it gets worse?
And what if it gets worse —and you happen to be that driver? What if a brick flies through your side window or a baseball bat slams down upon your windshield — all while you (and God forbid, your kids) are scared for your life?
There also are numerous stories and clips featuring motorists who’ve decided that enough was enough and just plowed through protesters blocking their way. Indeed, a Pinto could be surrounded by every NFL lineman who’s ever existed — along with Andre the Giant, Atilla the Hun and Al Capone — but once a driver hits the gas, none of them will be able to stop the vehicle.
But that isn’t the point. Everybody knows a car can get through protesters. The question is: Does the law allow it?
What does the law say?
The quick answer is that a motor vehicle is pretty much universally considered a deadly weapon if a driver uses one to purposely hit another person. Therefore a driver has to be acting in self-defense and in fear for his life or serious bodily injury to do so.
So, if protesters are sitting on a hood and scratching the side panels with their keys, then no — a driver can’t plow through them. The protesters’ crimes don’t match up with the driver’s crime.
But if protesters are shattering a windshield with bricks or baseball bats? If they’re brandishing other weapons? If they’re threatening to grab the driver and drag him from the car? That’s a different ballgame.
‘How serious is this mob?’
We spoke to Nashville criminal defense attorney Kevin Kelly of Eastside Legal, LLP, who said Tennessee law includes a “solid self-defense statute.”
In the case of a driver surrounded by protesters, Kelly said there “has to be reasonable belief on the part of the guy in the car that he’s in danger of imminent bodily injury” for him to hit anybody.
He also said drivers need to ask themselves other questions: “How serious is this mob? Are they armed? Do they have bats?”
In Tennessee, Kelly said there’s a kind of “stand-your-ground law” that dictates a person doesn’t have to retreat from a scene if the person has the right to be in that location. And again, he said, whatever force a person defending himself uses can’t exceed the force that’s threatening him.
“Is the crowd loud, angry and large?” Kelly asked. He replied that if it is, that’s not enough of a reason for the motorist to drive into the crowd.
Kelly also suggested that as opposed to hitting the gas and tearing through a crowd of protesters, a driver in fear for her safety could be justified in slowly moving a car ahead and “nudging people aside” to escape danger.
What are the consequences?
T. Greg Doucette — a Durham, North Carolina, attorney — echoed to us much of what Kelly explained.
Doucette noted that in his state, if protesters are “beating on windows” and the driver in his attempt to escape hits one of them while “inching forward” and exercising “due care and caution,” the driver may be charged with something like vehicular battery — but will nevertheless possess a strong defense due to the circumstances.
If the stakes rise and protesters have bats or guns or axes, and the driver hits a protester while he tries to escape, Doucette said the “odds of getting charged are slim,” and the chances of getting acquitted on the grounds of self-defense are “very high.”
Doucette added that he’s looked at laws in other states and said they’re essentially the same.
But he also pointed out that beyond the criminal aspect is the civil aspect of the law. In other words, a driver who hits protesters while escaping from what he believes is life-threatening danger may survive a criminal inquiry — but that won’t stop protesters from suing him.
Doucette said that civil liability varies by state, but 30 of them specifically look at who was at fault and to what degree — and that if a driver in our scenario is only 10 percent at fault, he’s responsible for only 10 percent of costs. In addition, Doucette said in North Carolina, there’s “contributory negligence,” which means if a suing protester was in any way responsible for his injuries, he likely will get nothing.