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Is It Legal for Protesters to Block Traffic?

Demonstrators march away from the White House during a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests in cities throughout the country have been held after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
By George Khoury, Esq. on September 26, 2016 4:03 PM

Blocking traffic is an illegal, albeit effective method of protesting in the United States. When protesters block traffic, they are engaging in civil disobedience, a term coined by one of America's earliest freethinkers and intellectuals, Henry David Thoreau.

While nearly everyone caught in a traffic jam caused by protesters becomes upset due to the delay, it is important to recognize that the inconvenience gets people’s attention, which is what protesters aim to do.

Although organized protests or marches can obtain permits to close streets, frequently protesters move from the permitted areas to other areas. When protesters block highways or streets that they are not permitted to be on, they are breaking the law and do risk arrest. 

But What About the First Amendment?

The First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble as well as the right to free speech and expression; however, there are limits on those rights. Generally, local and state governments can and do restrict the time, place, and manner of protest. For instance, noise and time restrictions are considered reasonable restrictions for residential areas. 

Additionally, just because people are protesting, doesn’t mean they are given free rein to break already existing laws. Simply walking on the highway, or any roadway outside a crosswalk, is considered jaywalking, which is a crime. Furthermore, most jurisdictions also have laws regarding blocking or obstructing traffic.

I Was Arrested While Protesting. Do I Need a Lawyer?

Frequently, protesters are arrested when their behavior becomes unlawful. While often protesters are simply detained in order for officers to effectively control a crowd, some protesters do get charged with crimes. If you are ticketed and released, or booked into custody, contact a lawyer right away as all criminal charges are serious matters that can have serious consequences.

Protest laws vary by state, but usually, protesters are charged with:

  • Trespassing
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Failing to obey an officer's instruction
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Resisting arrest
  • Assault

If you get arrested while protesting, it is your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent that you will want to remember to avoid self-incrimination. Anything you say can be used against you. You can be charged with a crime even if you do not think you did anything wrong. Demand to speak with a lawyer and avoid other unlawful behavior such as resisting arrest that could be added to the charges you face. 

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