Politics

To Stop Traffic Disruptors, Sue Them

Criminals eager to draw attention to what they call injustices will be marching along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, because, in the words of organizer Rev. Gregory Livingston, “I’m hoping we have enough to…block traffic, to be a disruptive force.”

The same illegal tactic of blocking traffic was also used in St. Louis last fall where it also forced restaurants and bars to shut down, and at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge where it caused a family to miss a funeral, and a father to miss the birth of his son. These are only a few examples of hundreds of efforts to shut down traffic to draw attention to some cause.

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The disproportionate publicity and attention such criminal acts generate for a cause, the unwillingness or inability of police to prevent them from continuing to reoccur, and the leniency of courts which either dismiss the cases or impose, as most, a tiny fine too small to discourage such conduct in the future, will only encourage more of the same unless someone is willing to "Sue The Bastards," says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Banzhaf called attention to the same problem, and proposed a simple but very effective solution, more than two year ago. Banzhaf, who popularized the "Sue the Bastards" slogan, helped generate law suits against those who illegally blocked traffic at NYC's George Washington Bridge, now suggests "Sue the Disruptors."

He says that citizens stepping up to protect their own legal rights - even if only in small claims court if necessary - by bringing civil torts actions against illegal disruptors is a far more effective way of discouraging these criminal conspiracies than the criminal law itself.

Virtually any time people deliberately violate a criminal statute designed to protect the public, anyone who suffers some kind of harm as a result can sue the criminals, not just for the damages actually suffered, but also for punitive damages - a much larger amount specifically designed to discourage similar conduct in the future - says Prof. Banzhaf.

Banzhaf's public interest legal actions got antismoking messages on the air, required Agnew to return the money he took in bribes, forced McDonald's to pay more than $12 million for deceiving the public, and resulted in many other legal victories.

Indeed, Banzhaf has been called "One of America's Premier Legal Activists," an "Entrepreneur of Litigation [and] a Trial Lawyer's Trial Lawyer," "The Law Professor Who Masterminded Litigation Against the Tobacco Industry," a "Driving Force Behind the Lawsuits That Have Cost Tobacco Companies Billions of Dollars," and the "Dean of Public Interest Lawyers."

There are many reasons why the criminal law has often actually encouraged - rather than discouraged - criminal disruptors, says Banzhaf, noting that the same phenomena of a handful of criminal activists demanding radical change for their pet cause has also now taken hold on too many college campuses.

Disruptors who violate criminal laws know that the chances of actually being arrested are small, as more and more police forces yield the streets and highways to their blockades, "die ins," chaining themselves to things, and other similar tactics - with police often afraid to make arrests, recognizing a new right to let off steam, or simply because of sympathy with their cause.

Even if a few disruptors are arrested, they usually face only a token fine - a small price to pay, they think, for getting even more publicity for their cause. Indeed, if they refuse to pay the fine and must be prosecuted in court, they can often turn the trial into a major media event - a tactic honed by the Chicago Seven - to focus even more public attention on their alleged grievances.

The arrests themselves can also be publicized, with still pictures or videos shot from cell phones and then posted on the Internet to gain sympathy, and to increase their status and street cred in the community.

Often, an illegal demonstration is seen as a "happening" - something fun and exciting and interesting to do - where people can join friends, meet those of the opposite sex, and have a good time while doing something they think they can feel proud about themselves for their participation.

By bringing legal actions against the individuals who organize illegal marches to black traffic - and their names usually can be obtained from postings on social media and/or from arrest records - those who favor the law can impose large actual as well as punitive damages on these criminals and, if necessary, put a lien on their possessions and even garnish their wages, regardless of what the authorities do or don't do.

Deliberately blocking streets or highways is also a crime, notes Banzhaf, so that anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam just because of such a street blockage would have a cause of action on this ground alone.

In addition, the well recognized tort of false imprisonment occurs whenever somebody deliberately makes it difficult for another to leave where they are. At Banzhaf's urging, this tort was used in a law suit against those who trapped people in their cars near NYC's GW bridge as part of a political protest, and could also be used by anyone caught in traffic jam caused by criminal disruptors.

It is also a tort, a civil wrong, to conspire with others to unlawfully harm someone, even if the same acts done by only a one person would not be illegal. So, for example, if protestors agree to all call an 800 number maintained by a political candidate so that others cannot get through, that constitutes a "civil conspiracy," and each and every participant can be held liable for the total damages, both actual and punitive.

"Suing the Disruptors" - like "Suing the Bastards" - may be the most effective way to help deter illegal protests, says Banzhaf, citing these examples.

When other groups learn that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been forced to pay $2.55 million to Japanese companies for illegally using acid and smoke bombs to disrupt their whaling, they may think twice before blocking traffic to advance their agenda, says Banzhaf.

In another example, a student who illegally chained himself to some construction equipment because he opposed an oil pipeline was forced to pay out big bucks for his criminal conduct.

As NPR reported it, he was apparently ready to accept a relatively painless conviction and a tiny fine for trespass, but not to pay the pipeline company $39,000 in restitution.

Similarly, eleven protesters who allegedly engaged in illegal activities at the Mall of America faced restitution claims from the City of Bloomington.

Pro-life activists were successfully sued under RICO for physically blocking access to abortion clinics under a theory which might even by used against those involved in illegal traffic disruptions, says Banzhaf.

And, even if the law suits are not successful in the end, they may nevertheless discourage those who might be tempted to organize the since they will have had to pay to hire a lawyer to defend themselves, has a law suit included in their credit rating file, and suffer other unpleasant consequences.

If we law abiding citizens want to avoid having this dangerous tactic spread even further throughout society, those affected - including, in the case of the Chicago disruptions, those trapped for minutes or even hours in the cars - have to be willing to stand up to these disruptions-for-a-cause bullies by using the tremendous power of legal action, says Banzhaf.