This week, we’re talking about Obstructing a Highway or Other Passageway. It’s a wordy charge (and a wordy statute), but it boils down to this:
Yes, you can get arrested for being in the way.
Let’s take a look at the statute:
Texas Penal Code Section 42.03:
Obstructing Highway or Other Passageway
(a) A person commits an offense if, without legal privilege or authority, he intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:
(1) obstructs a highway, street, sidewalk, railway, waterway, elevator, aisle, hallway, entrance, or exit to which the public or a substantial group of the public has access, or any other place used for the passage of persons, vehicles, or conveyances, regardless of the means of creating the obstruction and whether the obstruction arises from his acts alone or from his acts and the acts of others; or
(2) disobeys a reasonable request or order to move issued by a person the actor knows to be or is informed is a peace officer, a fireman, or a person with authority to control the use of the premises:
(A) to prevent obstruction of a highway or any of those areas mentioned in Subdivision (1); or
(B) to maintain public safety by dispersing those gathered in dangerous proximity to a fire, riot, or other hazard.
(b) For purposes of this section, “obstruct” means to render impassable or to render passage unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous.
(c) An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.
Obstructing Highway or Other Passageway (we’ll just call it Obstruction or Obstructing for short) is sort of a catch-all criminal charge. It covers any conduct that blocks the public from entering or passing through an area that is supposed to be publicly accessible. The most obvious example would be a car blocking a roadway, of course. (Which is why this is part of our car crimes series). But that’s not where this statute ends. For example, blocking a doorway so that people can’t enter could count as an offense under this statute. Another example: protesters blocking a sidewalk completely so no one else can pass on the sidewalk.
Of course, it’s also frequently used by police officers in traffic situations. Parking on a sidewalk counts as Obstruction. If a police officer directs someone to move their vehicle out of the way on a highway during an accident and they refuse, that can be charged under this offense. If someone falls asleep at a stop light, they can find themselves in a heap of charges which could include Obstruction. Especially if they were asleep due to intoxication.
There is a mental state, or mens rea, required in order to be convicted of Obstruction. So the State has to prove that you obstructed intentionally or knowingly or recklessly (being aware of the risks and choosing to ignore those risks). If you blocked a passage accidentally, or even negligently, you’re probably off the hook.
There are two ways the State can charge someone for Obstruction under this statute. The first way is for someone to obstruct a “place used for the passage of persons, vehicles, or conveyances.” Meaning that any place where human devices are supposed to be able to go is fair game for this charge. Where it gets tricky is the definition of “obstruct” being used for the purposes of this particular misdemeanor. For a person or object to obstruct, they have to “render impassable or to render passage unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous.” To demonstrate, let’s return to one of our examples. For parking on a sidewalk to meet this statute, the state has to present evidence that walking around the vehicle in a safe and reasonably convenient manner was not possible.
This car is parked on a sidewalk and definitely not Photoshopped. But it’s not stopping anybody from going anywhere safely and conveniently, so it’s not Obstructing.
This car is still parked on a sidewalk (and still not photoshopped), but it is now blocking a doorway. If the State can prove that the car was blocking the doorway, that there wasn’t another way past the wall, and/or that any other ways past were either inconvenient or hazardous, then you’ve got an Obstruction on your hands.
This means that even if a car is obstructing a lane on a roadway (and doing so intentionally), it may not meet the definition of the statute. Because people might be able to safely go around the vehicle and it might not be unreasonably inconvenient to do so.
We wouldn’t advise you to test those boundaries, though…
The second way the State can charge someone with Obstruction is if a person ignores a request to move from someone with authority. For this whole situation to count as Obstruction, the request to move must have been made in order to prevent obstruction from occurring or for some other safety reason. If a fireman asks a person to leave a street where a house is on fire and that person refuses or ignores the request, that’s Obstruction.
The statute lists police officers and firemen as people with authority, but it isn’t quite so clear on who other people “with authority to control the use of the premises” might be. It’s a broad wording, meaning that any number of people could fit that description. The owner of a property would count of course. But also a manager. Or a security guard.
The situations that bring up this particular part of the statute most often are protests. Police might instruct bystanders to move from a location in order to clear up an obstruction and the protesters might (allegedly) refuse to move. The protesters could then have Obstruction charges brought against them.
These situations can cause controversy as it seems to interfere with the First Amendment right to protest. However, the police officers in these scenarios are not violating those protesters’ rights. Just asking them to move somewhere else. Allegedly. And so the State can press criminal charges for their refusal to comply. Is it a method of suppression? Possibly yes, possibly no, depends, depends, depends.
No matter how you view it, an Obstruction charge can still cause months of legal headache and damage to your record. If a police officer or someone with authority asks you to move your vehicle or your person, it might be to your benefit comply so that you can avoid any legal entanglements.
Obstruction is a class B misdemeanor, meaning a person charged under this offense is facing up to 6 months in county jail and up to a $2,000 fine.
Obstructing a Highway or Other Passage is more than just blocking a lane on 1604. You can be charged with Obstruction for parking in the wrong place, for standing or gathering in the wrong place, or for ignoring the wrong person. And if you’re convicted, the punishment could be hefty. But even so, there are ways to fight an Obstruction case. If the State can’t prove the important elements, you might just be okay.
Our office offers free consultations, so if you do find yourself on the wrong side of the handcuffs , please get in touch to talk about your case.