‘Lives are at stake’: Suburban lawmaker targets protesters blocking traffic

If you were among the hundreds delayed, detoured or just plain disturbed by the protests Monday that blocked the expressway entrance to O’Hare International Airport, you’ve got a like-minded soul in suburban lawmaker Dan Ugaste.

Ugaste, a Republican state representative from Geneva, filed new legislation Wednesday making it a felony to block “an exceptionally busy public right-of-way” for more than five minutes in a way that would prevent police or other first responders from getting through.

In the wake of protests Monday that blocked the entrance to O’Hare International Airport, a suburban lawmaker has introduced a measure making it a felony to block heavily traveled roads in a way that might impede first responders for more than five minutes. AP

“In light of the recent protests cutting off traffic near O’Hare airport, it’s time to bring greater charges to people who commit these acts,” Ugaste said Thursday in a statement on the proposal. “What happens when an ambulance can’t get through, or a fire truck is delayed? Lives are at stake, and first responders cannot be held up in this manner. Blocking busy roadways is very dangerous and stronger punishments should be enforced.”

His House Bill 5819, if enacted, would amend the Illinois Public Demonstrations Law to make blocking emergency vehicles a Class 4 felony, punishable by a maximum 1 to 3 years in prison. Alerting authorities of a planned blockage ahead of time would not be a defense, under the legislation.

The bill defines an exceptionally busy right-of-way as one that’s used by at least 24,000 vehicles during a 24-hour period. That would easily cover Chicago-area expressways as well as many other major thoroughfares in the suburbs.

Pro-Palestinian protesters opposing the war in Gaza stopped traffic into the airport for about an hour starting just before 8:30 a.m. Monday. The blockade left travelers scrambling to reach terminals before their flights departed, with many grabbing their luggage and walking the rest of the way.

Airline passengers were forced to walk to terminals at O’Hare International Airport on Monday after protesters blocked the expressway entrance to the facility. Courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago

Chicago police said 40 protesters were arrested. ABC 7 reported they would face misdemeanor charges.

We reached out to Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, to get the organization’s take on Ugaste’s proposal.

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in October. A suburban lawmaker introduced legislation this week that would make it a felony to block traffic in a way that might impede first responders for more than five minutes. Associated Press

“It’s excessive and unnecessary,” he replied.

The measure, according to the ACLU, runs into First Amendment problems because it would impose harsher penalties on those who block traffic while engaging in protected speech than those who do it for other reasons.

“It seems an overreaction to a single event, not a serious legislative proposal,” he added.

In what may be a bad omen for Ugaste’s legislation, the bill was filed without any co-sponsors and immediately assigned to the House Rules Committee, sometimes referred to as “where bills go to die.”

State Rep. Dan Ugaste

Highland Park suit stays local

Lawsuits trying to hold gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson liable for the 2022 Highland Park mass shooting at a July 4 parade that left seven dead and dozens more injured belong in Lake County, not federal court, an appellate panel has ruled.

Members of the FBI's Evidence Response Team Unit investigate in downtown Highland Park after a deadly mass shooting during the city’s 2022 Independence Day parade. A lawsuit seeking to hold gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson liable for the shooting should remain in Lake County court, federal appellate panel ruled this month. The Associated Press

The decision from the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is a blow to Smith & Wesson, which had hoped to shift the litigation to federal courts that historically have been less welcoming toward product liability claims against gun makers.

The suits, filed by victims’ families and shooting survivors, allege Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson targeted its ads — including for the M&P 15 used in the attack — toward young men at risk of committing mass violence.

Smith & Wesson wanted the case moved out of Lake County circuit court, arguing that as part of an industry heavily regulated by the federal government, litigation against it belongs in federal court. The company noted, according to court documents, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms refers to gun manufacturers as its “partners” and to the system of regulation as a “partnership.”

But a unanimous decision written by federal appellate Judge Frank H. Easterbrook dismissed that as a “snippet of bureaucratese.”

“Smith & Wesson does not contend that ATF directed it to make any AR-15 style weapon or compelled it to include in the M&P 15 the rapid-fire features that (the) victims call wrongful,” Easterbrook continued. “Nor does Smith & Wesson contend that ATF directed it to advertise the M&P 15 in the way that it did. Those choices were Smith & Wesson’s.”

Making matters worse for the gun company, Easterbrook concluded the ruling by suggesting that Smith & Wesson might owe the plaintiffs legal fees for bringing an “unjustified” effort to shift the case from county court.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Ari Schrag described the decision as a major loss for Smith & Wesson, a big win for the victims, and an indication of a broad shift of momentum in gun cases.

“This ruling is part of a shift we’re seeing everywhere: while we are still a country with a strong Second Amendment, bad actors like Smith & Wesson no longer have carte blanche in marketing deadly weapons to disaffected kids using video-game style ads and ‘lone gunman’ themes when they know exactly where that leads — again, and again, and again,” Schrag wrote in a Facebook post. “So these cases are coming back to Lake County where they belong.”

State Rep. Bob Morgan, a Deerfield Democrat who was at the 2022 parade with his family, called the case “deeply personal.”

“This 7th Circuit decision reaffirms that gun manufacturers cannot hide from their responsibility, and gun violence rests at their feet due to their deceptive marketing practices that have existed for decades,” he wrote on social media.

Behind the scenes hero

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week kicked off Sunday, and it didn’t take long for one Lake County sheriff’s 911 telecommunicator in particular to show us why she and her peers ought to be celebrated.

About 11:25 a.m. Sunday, telecommunicator Christy O’Dette received a 911 call from a man who was attempting to end his life along the railroad tracks in Green Oaks, sheriff’s officials said.

O’Dette calmly spoke to the man, using de-escalation techniques. At the same time, she passed along information about the situation to her colleagues, who were able to contact the railroad and halt train traffic in the area, sheriff’s police said.

O’Dette then used equipment in the sheriff’s 911 center to determine the man’s location and send deputies to the scene. All the while, she built rapport with the man, convinced him to get off the tracks and stayed on the line with him for about 15 minutes, until deputies found him and took him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation and treatment, according to the sheriff’s office.

“This is another example highlighting the abilities of our sheriff’s telecommunicators,” Sheriff John D. Idleburg said.

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