PA critical infrastructure legislation advances
HARRISBURG, PA — Legislation that would increase penalties for trespass on “critical infrastructure” passed in the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on September 25, on a near party-line vote, with 15 Republicans and 11 Democrats voting in favor and one Republican opposed.
The law was specifically meant to protect controversial projects such as gas pipelines and gas wells. The legislation would designate vandalism against those facilities a new and separate category of crime. A person who trespasses on a facility intending to cause damage, or someone who actually causes damage could be charged with varying degrees of misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the severity of the damage.
Rep. John Maher, the chair of the committee, said amendments were made to the legislation to exclude protestors who trespass on a facility simply as a form of protest, not intending to cause any damage. He said this was done to protect the free speech rights of protestors.
But, he said, existing state law dictates that if a person trespasses on a facility with the intent to cause damage, law enforcement officials only have the options of charging the perpetrator with petty trespassing or terrorism, not a suffiently nuanced choice, and that’s why the law is needed.
Maher further said there needs to be a way to punish someone who, for instance, severs a fiber optic cable and cuts out phone and internet service for a community.
Environmental groups and the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the legislation because of concerns that it would infringe on the First Amendment Rights of some protestors.
Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the law is unnecessary because people who damage infrastructure can already be charged with various crimes. She also pointed out that under the proposed legislation, a convicted vandal could be compelled to pay as restitution, three times the amount of the cost of the actual damage, which is not the case in other types of crimes.
The legislation says a “person commits the offence of critical infrastructure vandalism if the person intentionally or recklessly destroys, vandalizes, defaces or tampers with equipment in a critical infrastructure facility.”
The legislation lists 30 facilities that are considered critical infrastructure including natural gas pipelines, compressor stations and cell towers.