Protesters Blocking Streets: What Are the Legal Consequences?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on December 08, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When protestors take to the streets, in many instances they also take over the streets by blocking traffic. But by doing so, these protestors may be inviting more than just attention to their cause, but also potential legal consequences.

Over the weekend, multiple protests spurred by a grand jury's decision not to bring criminal charges against the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner resulted in blocked streets and freeways. These protests included a demonstration in Oakland, California in which protestors blocked a freeway, resulting in a heated stand-off with police, reports CNN.

What potential legal consequences do protestors face for blocking streets? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Nothing. In many instances, as long as the protests are peaceful and disruptions are short-lived, police choose not to cite or arrest protestors. This was the case in New York City this morning as protestors blocked the Staten Island Expressway for seven minutes, the same amount of time Garner laid unresponsive on the sidewalk before receiving medical attention following the confrontation that led to his death, reports Gothamist. Police said that protestors had dispersed by the time they arrived and there were no arrests.
  • Pedestrian interference. In some states or cities, obstructing traffic may be considered pedestrian interference. In Seattle, for example, pedestrian interference occurs when a person intentionally "obstructs pedestrian or vehicular traffic," although the city's code does make an exception for "exercise of one's constitutional right to picket or to legally protest."
  • Assault. If protestors attempt, threaten, or actually do physically strike pedestrians, motorists, or police they may be charged with assault. During a demonstration over the weekend in Seattle, protestors were charged with both pedestrian interference and assault, reports the Associated Press.
  • Disorderly conduct. Encompassing behavior such as "disturbing the peace" or "drunk in public," disorderly conduct is a catch-all criminal charge in many jurisdictions. Impeding sidewalks or traffic may lead to a disorderly conduct citation, depending on the laws of your state.

If you are facing any of these kinds of charges, the best way to protect your rights is to speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as you can. 

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