Legislation prompted by sometimes destructive protests against pipelines and other “critical infrastructure” won approval in the Oklahoma House of Representatives on Tuesday.
House Bill 1123 by Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, increases the penalties for destruction of such infrastructure while trespassing or conspiring to trespass to up to 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Biggs vehemently denied his bill is intended to discourage lawful protests, but also said it is a “preventative” measure necessary in light of activities elsewhere.
“The word ‘protest’ is not mentioned in this bill,” Biggs said.
Nationally, a number of state legislatures are considering bills to penalize those charged with being involved in destructive demonstrations. Last week the Arizona Senate adopted a bill authorizing the seizure of assets of individuals and organizations tied to such protests.
Trespassing is currently a simple misdemeanor in Oklahoma, but Biggs’ bill creates what he called “levels” to the infraction, and what his opponents — and the summary prepared by House staff — called two new felonies.
Under HB 1123, “willfully trespassing” on “critical infrastructure,” including oil and gas transportation, production and refining facilities, certain kinds of manufacturing and utilities, would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.
The same offense, but with “intent … to willfully damage, destroy, vandalize, deface, tamper with equipment, or impede or inhibit operations of the facility” is a felony in the bill, punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison.
Conviction for actually carrying out the prohibited activities would result in fines of up to $100,000 and 10 years in prison, and an organization “found to be a conspirator” could be fined up to $1 million.
Biggs and his opponents argued at some length about whether his bill creates new felonies, with Biggs fiercely insisting it does not.
Rep. Todd Russ, R-Clinton, said the state already has too many felonies on the books, and objected to the section making “intent” one.
“These are the ways we get this creeping approach to making things a felony that aren’t a felony,” said Russ “If there is true damage … you can charge them with vandalism already.”
Several lawmakers, mostly Democrats, said the conspiracy language was too broad and could make almost anyone remotely connected to a demonstration that “went sideways,” as one said, subject to a $1 million fine.