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Fallon: Bill got 'twisted into something it's clearly not'

Profile image for Lauren McGaughy
Lauren McGaughy, The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN -- The author of a Texas bill to protect drivers who injure demonstrators found himself the target of outrage on social media over the weekend after the hit-and-run death of a young woman protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.

Last month, Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, filed legislation to protect motorists who hit demonstrators "blocking traffic in a public right-of-way" if the driver exercises "due care." House Bill 250 would protect drivers against civil liability only but would not lessen criminal penalties for deadly hit-and-runs, a second-degree felony in Texas.

Pat Fallon
Pat Fallon

Fallon's bill has no chance of passing this summer. Lawmakers are scheduled to gavel out the monthlong summer special session on Wednesday without even holding a hearing on the measure.

Nevertheless, by Monday morning, Fallon said he'd received "hundreds" of angry responses from people upset over the events this weekend in Virginia, especially the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old protester struck and killed by a driver who also injured at least 19 other people.

James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio man who rallied with white supremacist groups on Saturday, has been charged with her murder as well as malicious wounding and failing to stop at a crash site that resulted in a death. Fallon said his legislation would not have protected someone like Fields from criminal charges. He blasted the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.

"Any jackass that thinks they're going to be cool because they're a Nazi, are you serious?" Fallon told The Dallas Morning News. "There's no room for that," he added, calling Heyer's death "horrific."

Fallon added he was "incredibly offended" that people tied his bill to Fields and those like him. Early Monday morning, he posted a message on Facebook that read in part:

"What happened in VA was atrocious, and yes it was murder. Any leveled-headed American would condemn it as I do. We need to take care to be consistent and condemn all racism and hate."

Moment of silence

Later Monday, the Texas House stood in solidarity against the white supremacists who gathered in Virginia.

"We will continue to call out terrorism, whether it is domestic or foreign," said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, who spoke before a moment of silence for Heyer and the two Virginia troopers killed in a helicopter crash while monitoring the Charlottesville protests. "Now the eyes of the world are on Texas."

Fallon's bill was not one of Gov. Greg Abbott's 20 special session priorities, giving it little to no chance of passage. It was never scheduled for a public hearing, but if it had been, Fallon said he intended to substitute the current version with one that would have protected only drivers who hit protesters gathered on "high-speed roadways" like highways.

"This has been twisted into something it's clearly not," Fallon said of his legislation. "This bill was intended to prevent people and discourage people from blocking high-speed roadways."

Representatives with the ACLU in Texas and North Carolina, where similar legislation is being debated, said Fallon's bill was intended to discourage free speech and assembly.

"The flavor and tenor of this is to quell protest," said Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "It is to essentially set up a structure where you protest at your own risk [and] there is a shield for motorists who choose, which happened just recently, to use their vehicle as a literal bludgeon."

She expressed concern over why the proposal does not define "due care" and questioned how protesters could prove they were hit intentionally if there was no video footage of the incident, like there was in Charlottesville.

'A terrible message'

Matt Simpson, a police specialist with the ACLU of Texas, acknowledged that Fallon's bill would not lessen criminal penalties for drivers who intentionally kill pedestrian protesters. But he said the bill would be difficult to implement if it became law and would send "a terrible message" to Texans.

"This is obviously more symbolic than meaningful," Simpson said.

He said he was unaware of anyone who had sued a Texas driver who accidentally hit protesters. "This seems like a solution in search of a problem."

Fallon responded, "I completely and categorically disagree with the ACLU's interpretation. A protester has every right to protest on the sidewalk, get a permit and protest -- not in the roadway. This has nothing to do with that.

"The whole point of the legislation, I've said many times, is to prevent what could happen."