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Bill: Protesters who demonstrate illegally would have to pay for police costs

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Protesters who take part in demonstrations that are deemed illegal would have to pay for the cost of law enforcement's response, under a bill proposed in the Minnesota House this week.

The lead author argues it would save taxpayers money – but the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota warns it could violate the right to freedom of speech.

Here's a look at the proposal, and where it is in the law-making process.

What the bill would do

Essentially, people could be held liable for public safety costs (so police or other law enforcement response) if they're convicted of participating in an unlawful assembly, being present at an unlawful assembly, or committing a public nuisance. All are misdemeanors.

State law defines unlawful assembly as when three or more people gather to commit an unlawful act, disturb or threaten public peace, or conduct themselves in a disorderly manner.

The agency could ask for related legal, administrative and court costs to be covered as well. (You can read the legislative language here.)

Rep. Zerwas: It will save taxpayers money

Rep. Nick Zerwas is the lead author, and argues it would save taxpayer money.

In a statement, the Republican from Elk River said that while the right to demonstrate is "a fundamental right and a cornerstone" of democracy, unlawful protests can result in "substantial monetary costs for taxpayers" when police, fire departments and ambulances have to respond.

During Jamar Clark-related protests outside Minneapolis' Fourth Precinct, Police Chief Janee Harteau said the department's overtime bill was $750,000. Zerwas, citing charges filed in the case, also points out that Bloomington police presence as a result of the 2014 Mall of America protest cost the city's residents an extra $25,000.

Of note: No protester in connection with either of those demonstrations has been convicted of unlawful assembly.

On Twitter, Zerwas said his bill only affects illegal activity.

"Groups that protest peacefully will be unaffected," he said.

ACLU has concerns

ACLU-Minnesota came out strongly against the proposal Friday, calling it "unconstitutional" and claiming it would "have an incredibly chilling effect on freedom of speech."

"Free speech is not reserved for those who can afford to pay any costs associated with it," the organization's release says. "Freedom of speech is for everyone, and it is unjust to expect the average Minnesotan to pay tens of thousands of dollars when exercising this right."

The ACLU statement also argues police response to recent protests – specifically Black Lives Matter demonstrations – were "over the top and unnecessary."

"Demonstrators should not be expected to pay for the overzealous law enforcement reaction."

What has to happen for it to become law

The bill was referred to the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance committee – meaning that 17-member panel has to give the bill the go-ahead before the full Republican-controlled House can vote on it.

There is not a matching bill in the DFL-controlled Senate at this point (and note the Senate and House both have to pass identical bills before the governor can sign it into law).

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