June 4, 2020 / 9:05 PM / a month ago

Fact check: Drivers don’t have the right to “plow through” protesters

Shared widely on Facebook, posts make a misleading and potentially dangerous claim about the legality of driving into a crowd of protesters with a car. Most iterations of this claim feature a Google search screenshot bringing up a preview answer from question-and-answer website Quora.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of this post can be found here , here , and here .

The post says: “If they are blocking a public road without any kind of permit of official protest designation, they are illegally detaining you… That all being said, if the protestors at any time start banging on your windows, threatening you and trying to enter your vehicle, you can by all means hit the gas and plow through them.”

The text is an extract from a longer, more detailed entry on Quora which begins by stating that a driver must proceed at very low speed to give people the chance to easily get out of the way ( here ).

As it appears in the posts, this claim is false. A driver who deliberately ran over a protester (or any pedestrian) could face homicide charges and would need to prove that they reasonably believed they had no alternative in order to avoid death or serious harm to themselves.

David Alan Sklansky, who specializes in criminal law, criminal procedure, and evidence at Stanford Law School (  here ), told Reuters by phone: "Homicide law is defined state by state, but I think there is a broad consensus, first that driving a car at a pedestrian can constitute deadly force, second that the use of deadly force is justified in self-defense only when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary to use deadly force in order to protect himself against death or serious bodily injury, or other serious felonies like rape or kidnapping.”

He added: “There are differences between state laws, particularly with regard to when you are obliged to safely retreat if you can safely retreat. But there are some things about which there’s a general legal consensus. One is that you don’t have a duty to retreat if doing so would put you in danger.” Supreme Court cases establishing this precedent include Beard v. United States (1895) and Brown v. United States (1921) (  here , here  ).

“Another broad point of agreement is that the sufficiency of the threat that an individual is facing is judged by the jury,” Sklansky explained. “The standard generally is not whether somebody was genuinely in fear, but whether they genuinely and reasonably believed that they needed to use deadly force to protect themselves against death or serious bodily injury.”

Though legislation was introduced in eight state legislatures to grant immunity to a driver who accidentally injures or kills a protester blocking traffic, none of these bills sought to protect drivers who did so on purpose.

In North Carolina, for example, House Bill 330 passed its third reading in the state senate on April 27, 2017. It was described by the ACLU as a “‘hit and kill’ bill” that “would create immunity for anyone who hits a protestor blocking traffic, unless the protest had a permit.”  (  here  ) The bill (found here  ), however, would only grant immunity to the driver if harm done to the protester was unintentional. According to the North Carolina General Assembly website, the bill has not become law.

In 2017, state legislators introduced similar bills exempting motorists from liability for striking a protester under certain circumstances in Rhode Island (  here  ), Texas (  here  ), North Dakota (  here  ), Tennessee (  here  ), Indiana (  iga.in.gov/documents/79282dd2  ) Florida (  here  ), and Kentucky (  here  ). None of these bills became law.

Had they passed, the bills would still not have provided immunity for intentional harm to protesters, however. Rhode Island’s H 5690, for example, stipulated that a driver “shall not be immune from civil liability if the actions of the driver leading to the injury were willful or wanton.”

On December 7, 2018, James Alex Fields Jr., a white nationalist who drove his car into a crowd protesting against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and killed one of the counterdemonstrators, was found guilty of first-degree murder and nine other counts (  here  ). Though Field’s defense attorney told jurors that her client had expressed remorse when arrested, saying to police “I’m sorry I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I thought they were attacking me,” prosecutors countered that he had come to the rally to harm others.

VERDICT

False. Deliberately plowing into a group of protesters could amount to a use of deadly force, and a driver facing homicide charges arising from this scenario would need to convince a jury they acted in the reasonable belief that they had no other way to protect themselves from death or serious harm.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .

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