THE BUZZ: Legislature Toys With Citizens’ Rights

By on March 21, 2018

Wyoming’s legislative session has drawn to a close, but worries linger among social justice advocates

Critics of an anti-protest bill say it was an attempt to prevent protests like Standing Rock from happening in Wyoming. (Jessica Chambers)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Two major anti-social justice bills worked their way through the Wyoming Legislature before its session concluded last week. Governor Matt Mead vetoed one and signed the other into law. “Stand your ground-two,” which became law, is similar to the Florida statute that helped George Zimmerman to claim self-defense for the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American.

“Crimes against critical infrastructure,” meanwhile, could have punished protesters engaging in acts similar to, say, the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota. It made it through the legislature after a murky process and re-vote before Mead vetoed it. Both pieces of legislation have alarmed civil rights activists.

‘Reasonable Fear’ for Self-Defense

The stand your ground bill expands the Castle Doctrine, which gives the right to homeowners to act in self-defense and use deadly force against intruders. Now people have the right to act in self-defense anywhere they feel threatened: in the Town Square, walking down the sidewalk, in a grocery store.

Fremont County Rep. Jim Allen, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the law would be helpful for attorneys and prosecutors when handling self-defense cases. He said the updated piece of legislation protects people when they’re outside the home and feel threatened.

“Your life is just as important if you’re out somewhere,” he said. “Every human on the planet has a right to self-defense.”

Sen. Dan Dockstader, who represents a portion of Teton County, told Planet Jackson Hole that he supported the bill in concept and voted for it, though he wasn’t involved in in-depth conversations about it. But “it’s part of what Wyoming stands for,” he said.

The bill was heavily supported by the National Rifle Association, but Allen maintains “it’s not about guns, it’s about self-defense.”

In gun-toting Wyoming, the bill passed its final reading in the Senate with only four nays. In the House, 11 lawmakers opposed the bill. Jackson Rep. Andy Schwartz-D, was among the bill’s opponents. He said he doesn’t have a problem with guns, but that laws are already in place that protect people’s rights to defend themselves.

“Basically, I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of violence in society is more people carrying guns,” Schwartz said.

Stand your ground also makes it more complicated for law enforcement, Schwartz said. If a cop shows up to a bar fight gone wrong and a person shoots and kills someone, the law could protect that person in the name of self-defense.

“They can say, ‘You can’t arrest me, I have immunity,’” Schwartz said. “How is that officer supposed to know what actually happened?”

Schwartz said he thought the phrasing in the bill, which stated someone was justified if he or she felt reasonably threatened, set a “really low bar.”

Wyoming was the last state in the West to expand the Castle Doctrine outside of the home. Other Western states including Montana, Idaho and Utah have had either statute or case law that allows people to shoot first and not retreat if they feel their lives are threatened. Florida was the first state to explicitly expand the Castle Doctrine in 2005.

Stifling Free Speech

The controversial bill that critics dubbed “the protest bill” aimed to criminalize individuals and organizations protesting on or near critical infrastructure. Supporters of the bill said they wanted to protect oil and gas infrastructure, but the wording of the bill includes a broad swath of infrastructure including cell towers, train cars and dams.

Sen. Leland Christensen-R, Alta, sponsored the bill, which handily passed through the Senate. Wyoming policy watchdogs became worried when the bill was seemingly mishandled and passed in the House. The House Mineral Committee initially killed the bill with a 4-4 vote, but committee chairman Mike Greear-R, Worland, did not sign the bill by its deadline. This created a hold-up. A re-vote was called the next day and committee members swapped their votes. During the re-vote, the bill won a majority and went to the governor’s desk. 

The move caught the attention of Phoebe Stoner of the Equality State Policy Center. The re-vote, she said, made it apparent that oil and gas lobbyists had convinced lawmakers to have a change of heart. “That was really not transparent,” she said. “It opens huge holes for corruption to happen.”

Christensen did not return phone calls for comment.

Nathan Martin, director of Better Wyoming, a communications hub for progressive politics, said the bill seemed to have a few different influences, including law enforcement, but the clear one was a push from the Wyoming gas and oil industry.

Schwartz, who voted against the bill, agreed. He said supporters won’t admit that the bill was “about the Keystone Pipeline,” referencing the Standing Rock protests.

Oil and gas industry lobbyists were prevalent at the legislative session and seemed to be dominating state politics and culture, which Martin said “prevent Wyoming from moving forward” and diversifying.

“It’s emblematic of Wyoming’s longstanding, unquestioning dependence on oil and gas production,” he said. “There is a very strong current in the Legislature that will roll over and do whatever the gas and oil industry will do.”

Lawmakers amended the bill more than a dozen times, altering penalties and broadly defining critical infrastructure. “By the time it was finished people weren’t even sure what was in it,” Martin said. “It got really, really messy and these things are supposed to be going into law.”

Schwartz said it was poorly written and badly defined. It included language about defacing property, which could be something as minor as kids spray painting a train car, he said.

In the governor’s veto letter, Mead acknowledged the bill was flawed and “imprecisely crafted.”

But Martin said this won’t be the end. He expects a different iteration of the bill to find its way back into the legislature, maybe as an interim topic. “It has really hit a nerve,” he said. “It’s not going to go away.”

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