Judge Acquits Pipeline Protestors

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 16, 2021

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PipelineAnnette Klapstein and Emily Johnston cut through chains and padlocks to gain access to valves that control the flow of oil through two pipelines in Clearwater County, Minnesota. Ben Joldersma then called Enbridge to notify the company that protestors were about to turn the emergency values to shut down the oil supply. Joldersma encouraged Enbridge to shut down the flow itself in a way that would assure everyone’s safety.

The three protestors live-streamed their actions on Facebook. Their actions briefly halted the flow of oil from Canada to the United States. The protestors hoped that their actions would call attention to the oil industry’s contribution to global warming.

Padlocks and chains don’t cost much, and damaging property of minimal value is typically a misdemeanor, as is criminal trespass. Prosecutors nevertheless charged the three protestors with felonies for allegedly causing damage to a critical public service.

That strategy opened the door for protestors to argue that the environmental damage caused by global warming isn’t a public service. As FreeAdvice reported, the judge presiding over the prosecution agreed to allow the protestors to raise the defense of necessity. The rarely-allowed defense allows individuals to violate the law to prevent a greater harm, provided that no reasonable alternative action is available.

Defendants Acquitted

The prosecutor played the Facebook video for the jury and showed them the damaged chain and padlock. Had he charged the defendants only with the misdemeanors they committed, that would probably be all the evidence he would have needed to prove his case.

The Minnesota crime of causing damage to a critical public service requires proof that the defendant “cause[d] damage to the physical property of a . . . pipeline with the intent to significantly disrupt the operation of or the provision of services by the . . . pipeline and without the consent of one authorized to give consent.”

The offense was added to Minnesota law as part of an anti-terrorism package of legislation. The state legislature doubtlessly envisioned foreign terrorists sneaking into Minnesota and blowing up pipelines or oil storage facilities. Turning a valve was probably not what the legislature had in mind when it authorized a 10-year sentence for the crime.

The prosecutor produced no evidence that the protestors had, in fact, caused damage to Enbridge’s physical property. No oil was spilled. No valves were damaged. The pipeline remained intact, without so much as a dent.

An Enbridge spokesperson described the protestors’ actions in hysterical terms, likening their conduct in stopping the flow of oil through the pipeline to stopping a speeding train. Yet the protestors assured that their actions would not harm the pipelines by giving Enbridge the opportunity to shut down the flow safely before they engaged in the symbolic act of turning the valves. Environmental protestors, after all, have no incentive to cause an oil spill that might harm the environment.

The protestors’ actions might have caused financial harm to Enbridge, but the terrorism statute requires proof of damage to physical property. Since there was no damage, the judge followed the law and acquitted the defendants at the end of the prosecution’s case.

The Risks of Jury Trials

How the protestors would have fared before the jury is unclear. During jury selection, many potential jurors expressed skepticism about the reality of global warming, despite overwhelming evidence that human activity, including fossil fuel consumption, is a key contributing factor to the planet’s warming. One potential juror called climate change a farce. Jurors who refuse to believe facts are less than ideal fact-finders in a trial.

Some potential jurors also expressed their support for Enbridge because their family members worked in the pipeline industry. Enbridge maintains six pipelines across northern Minnesota and thus contributes to employment in rural Clearwater County.

The judge also pulled the rug out from under the necessity defense, ruling that there was no need for expert witnesses to educate the jurors about climate change because jurors already understood the issues. Given the skepticism that potential jurors expressed about fundamental climate science, that ruling is difficult to understand.

Victory or Loss?

The protestors were relieved that the acquittal saved them from the potential of serving long prison sentences, but were disappointed that they could not use the trial to showcase the need for action to stop climate change that is already causing more and stronger hurricanes, droughts and heat waves, rising sea levels, flooding, the loss of animal habitats, and other environmental changes that will have a drastic impact on future generations.

On the other hand, by barring experts from testifying, the judge prevented the protestors from making that case effectively. Judges are usually averse to having their courtrooms used to make political statements, and both sides in this prosecution tried to use the trial for political purposes.

The prosecutor charged a more serious crime than the state could prove in an obvious attempt to send a discouraging message to protestors. The judge was even-handed in the sense that he did not allow either the prosecutor or the protestors to use the legal system to send political messages.

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