The state legislature is considering a law that would make it a felony to trespass on a “critical infrastructure facility.”
The full Senate and the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee have approved the bill despite opposition from the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a passionate plea from state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-186).
“I understand the concerns of infrastructure and I would be supportive, but my biggest concern with the bill is that [trespassing at an infrastructure site in the state] would be considered a second-degree felony, which is typically left for those who commit some type of murder or manslaughter in our commonwealth,” Harris said.
The law would leave “too much” to the interpretation of law enforcement officials, he added.
“Regardless of where you stand on law enforcement, … when things are ambiguous, it doesn’t seem to play well for people in my community,” Harris said. “This bill is way out of line.”
Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says the law is unnecessary because people who damage infrastructure already can be charged with various crimes.
Sponsored by Sen. Mike Regan (R-31), Senate Bill 652 is designed to protect facilities such as gas pipelines and gas wells.
“Legislation is needed to enhance penalties for criminal trespass,” he said.
The proposal comprises a wide swath of operations — whether built or under construction — in defining a “critical infrastructure facility.” It can range from petroleum, chemical and pipeline facilities to electrical power and water treatment facilities to telecommunications facilities to shipping and trucking ports to railroad switching yards, as well as any others identified and regulated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Chemical Facility Anti-terrorism Standards program.
Under the legislation, anyone who enters a critical infrastructure facility with intent to vandalize or damage any part of it or interfere with the operations could be charged with varying degrees of misdemeanor or felony counts and pay fines of $5,000 to $20,000. The felony charges would come with prison sentences.
“They would only be getting county time and we’d be putting them in a population that they don’t deserve to be in,” Harris said. “Also, that felony would bar them from any meaningful work in the future.
“First-degree felony is murder,” he noted. “It’s premeditated murder, so how can we put this [trespassing] on the same par as murder and a person who commits premeditated murder? It makes absolutely no sense to me.”
The state Senate passed the bill by a 28-20 vote in May. Democratic Sens. Andrew Dinniman, Lawrence Farnese, Art Haywood, Vincent Hughes, John Sabatina Jr., Sharif Street, Christine Tartaglione and Anthony Williams along with Republicans Stewart Greenleaf and Thomas Killion were among the no votes.
The bill was referred to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in June, which approved it with an amendment in September by a vote of 15 to 12. Democratic Reps. Donna Bullock, Harris and Leanne Krueger-Braneky joined their dozen colleagues in casting dissenting votes.