- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s office is pursuing legislation to make it clear that the governor’s emergency response powers apply to destructive protests, create new trespassing penalties and make it a crime to obstruct highways based on lessons North Dakota learned from large demonstrations over the Dakota Access pipeline last year.

Officials including Daugaard have talked with Gov. Doug Burgum’s administration to hear about North Dakota’s experience handling the protests and what the state would have done differently, Chief of Staff Tony Venhuizen told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“We’ve seen what we’ve seen in North Dakota, and we want to be prepared,” Venhuizen said. “We certainly understand that there may be people who want to peacefully protest, and it’s nobody’s intention to prohibit that or prevent that, but those need to be controlled so that they don’t endanger public safety or public property or private property.”

A spokesman for Burgum didn’t immediately return a telephone message requesting comment.

The South Dakota bill would allow the governor to declare an area a “public safety zone” if an event occurs that may consume significant public resources, poses a threat to property and threatens the health and welfare of the public.

The governor’s emergency authority includes assuming control over emergency management functions, declaring an emergency in a stricken area and helping local authorities give relief and controlling access to designated emergency areas. The governor can mobilize state resources and coordinate local resources in an emergency, Venhuizen said.

The proposal would make it aggravated criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, to defy a posted order not to enter a public safety zone. The sentence would be at least 10 days in county jail, and a second offense within two years would be a felony.

The bill also would make it a misdemeanor for someone to stand in the highway to stop traffic. It’s set to be discussed in a Senate committee next week.

That will ensure the public has time to read it and give testimony, Venhuizen said.

The disputed four-state pipeline could be moving oil in as little as a month, though opponents, including the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux, are promising to continue fighting the $3.8 billion project.

An encampment near the construction in southern North Dakota drew thousands of protesters last year in support of the tribes, leading to occasional clashes with law enforcement and more than 700 arrests. The camp has thinned, but law enforcement continues to maintain a presence. The cost to taxpayers has reached $33 million, the state’s Joint Information Center reported Monday, and the protests have created an unprecedented burden for the state’s court system.

The South Dakota proposal would let the state Supreme Court’s chief justice in an emergency streamline the process for out-of-state attorneys to be allowed to defend people who are arrested, Venhuizen said. He said a huge number of cases in in the state could require more defense attorneys than could reasonably be expected to come from within just South Dakota.

In North Dakota, lawmakers recently defeated a bill prompted by protesters who blocked roads during the Dakota Access pipeline demonstrations. The bill said a driver who “unintentionally” caused an injury or death to a person blocking a road would not be charged.

Libby Skarin, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, said protest is often unpopular, but it’s a fundamental the country was built on.

“We know that there have been a spate of anti-protest bills that have been popping up all over the country,” Skarin said. “The idea that this bill could be some sort of pre-emption against potential protest activity is really concerning.”

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