Ohio Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, has introduced a bill that substantially tightens Ohio’s laws against trespassing and property damage involving industrial infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines.
Ohio Senate Bill 250 echoes dozens of other bills that have been introduced – and even passed – in other state legislatures since the 2016 pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Ohio’s bill also makes it illegal to fly aerial drones over pieces of “critical infrastructure” – things like pipelines, petroleum refineries, electric stations and dams.
The ACLU of Ohio and local environmental activists told The NEWS in statements Tuesday that they oppose the bill.
Meanwhile, Ohio Sen. Hoagland – who represents the 30th Senate district (which includes most of Athens County) – argued in an interview Tuesday that the bill is all about “protecting the people” in the 30th District. He disputed that the bill could be used to discourage protesters from staging demonstrations similar to those seen at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
While the legislation has only been introduced – it hasn’t reached a committee yet – the bill in its current form would add significant criminal charges for people or “any organization found guilty of complicity” in violation of Ohio’s criminal trespassing, aggravated trespassing or criminal-mischief laws while on property considered to be a “critical infrastructure” facility. For example, here’s the new statute for trespassing:
“(No person shall) knowingly enter, remain on, or operate a drone over the land or premises of another that contains a critical infrastructure facility and is beyond a fence, an enclosure manifestly designed to restrict access, or signs posted in a manner reasonably calculated to come to the attention of potential intruders,” the bill reads.
Those found guilty of criminal mischief under SB 250 – typically a first-degree misdemeanor-level charge – would be charged with a first-degree felony, the most serious level of crime in Ohio law, and any “organization found guilty of complicity” would be punished with a fine that is 10 times the maximum fine that can be imposed on somebody for a first-degree felony (the current maximum fine in Ohio for a first-degree felony is $20,000).
Those found guilty of trespassing – either in-person or with a drone – on or over a “critical infrastructure” facility would face a first-degree misdemeanor charge under SB 250, and again, “complicit” organizations could be fined 10 times the maximum fine that can be imposed on somebody for a first-degree misdemeanor (the current maximum is $1,000). The same framework is applied for the “aggravated trespassing” statute – kicking the charge for the crime from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, and fining “complicit” organizations 10 times the maximum fine that can be imposed on somebody for a third-degree felony.
Hoagland argued that the bill protects people because it safeguards the industries that people rely on in their daily lives.
“I’m talking about (protection for) people like my mother… (and) our families, that need to make sure that their electric is on every day or they’ve got the right fuel for their vehicles or they’ve got good rubber that goes onto their tires,” Hoagland said.
The ACLU of Ohio in a statement provided by chief lobbyist Gary Daniels called the bill “unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional.”
Daniels noted that the language in the bill is too broad – for example, the criminal-mischief statute is amended to include this language: “(No person shall) without privilege to do so, knowingly deface, damage, destroy, or tamper with a critical infrastructure facility, or otherwise impede or inhibit the facility’s operations.” The latter phrase is overly ambiguous, he suggested.
Daniels also noted that the bill seeks to hold third parties accountable for the wrongdoings of others “if that third party pays or reimburses” the person in question, reasoning which he said has been rejected by various courts.
Daniels added that the ACLU has concerns about the language in the bill regarding drones.
Meanwhile, he said that SB 250 could protect “illegal and dangerous activities at critical infrastructure facilities” because it targets undercover journalists and activists.
“For example, what if hazardous waste is being illegally dumped or buried and a journalist or activist seeks to expose that wrongdoing and bring it to the attention of authorities or other Ohioans?” he asked.
HOAGLAND DISPUTED that the bill would be used to crack down on protesters. As long as protesters don’t “cause any damages to the infrastructure,” he said, they won’t be penalized under SB 250. He said he has talked to peaceful protesters in Marietta recently, and argued that he doesn’t want to infringe on people’s first amendment rights.
When he was asked about the stiffening of Ohio’s trespassing laws in the bill, he said, “let’s face it, nobody wants anybody to come into your house… and your property (without consent).”
The trespassing statutes are all about a person’s “intentions,” Hoagland added.
“I believe that people are good before they’re bad; they have to demonstrate their intentions are different,” he said.
Hoagland also argued that crimes such as “criminal mischief” become much more serious when they could affect people’s access to utilities.
“If somebody took your line of communications away… something that is purposefully done, is that mischief?” Hoagland asked. “….When somebody does something that impacts tens of thousands of people, that’s not mischief, sir, that’s a serious event.”
Hoagland, when asked about the drone regulations in the bill, argued that drones could be used in an “offensive move” to collect information from utilities, like a cellphone tower, for example, or even be used to “incapacitate that cellphone tower.” Hoagland said he isn’t aware of drones being used in Ohio to that end, however.
LOCAL ACTIVISTS with the steering committee of the Athens County Anti-Fracking Network (ACFAN) provided a statement in opposition to SB 250 Tuesday, arguing that the bill would allow the government to target “any organization claimed by the state to endorse” protests.
ACFAN’s statement argues that the bill is based on a framework created by a “fossil-fuel company.” The bill does mirror the language of a “critical infrastructure protection act” model policy created by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, which has close ties to the fossil-fuel industry, The Intercept, an online “adversarial” news publication, reported in a Feb. 2 article.
The ACFAN statement reads, “This outrageous Ohio bill is based on one created by a fossil-fuel company and being promoted in other states, which calls for more severe punishment specifically for trespass of oil and gas infrastructure facilities, including pipelines.
“Meanwhile the Rover Pipeline, a 369-mile pipeline through Ohio, has had 19 violations for spills of millions of gallons of toxic chemicals in streams, wetlands and fields, resulting in (Ohio) EPA shutting down their operations on several occasions,” the statement continues. “It is critical that the people in Ohio have the right to protest and the right to oversee these dangerous and shoddy operations in order to protect our state’s lands, streams, wildlife and human health.”