Criminal Cases Against Line 3 Protesters Highlight Rural Minnesota Legal System

She decided to travel to northern Minnesota to join the protests against the pipeline – and kept returning.

“Fighting Line 3 was the right thing to do,” said Stovall, 20, from Illinois who specializes in political science and international relations. “We cannot have new fossil fuel infrastructure like Line 3 if we are to have a breathable planet.”

In March, Stovall was arrested along with other protesters who locked themselves together around a prayer pavilion at a pipeline construction site in Hubbard County. She was arrested twice more during other protest actions over the summer.

For the March incident, Stovall faces charges of trespassing, illegal assembly and public nuisance. But after a July arrest in Pennington County, she was charged with a more serious felony of trespassing on critical infrastructure.

Stovall had to wait months to be assigned a public defender to represent her.

“It’s stressful – a lot of weight not being able to move on,” she said. “I would really love to file motions to dismiss my charges, and I cannot do so without representation.”

Nearly 900 people have been arrested during protests against the Line 3 pipeline, which is being built in northern Minnesota. Most were cited with misdemeanors. But many, like Stovall, have been charged with serious misdemeanors, and some face felony charges.

The number of court cases is straining resources in counties in northern Minnesota where most protests have taken place. In addition to waiting months for a public defender, some defendants also argue that the charges they face are unfairly severe.

“What we see in line 3 is definitely bigger charges or more serious charges with the potential for more serious penalties,” said Lauren Regan, executive director and senior counsel at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which helps represent pipeline activists.

She said accusations against Line 3 protesters have escalated since the protests began, although she says their actions have been non-violent and fairly ordinary acts of civil disobedience.

“You see the state… getting really creative by sticking crimes on people that we wouldn’t otherwise expect,” Regan said.

Mac “Laurel” Sutherlin, who works for the Rainforest Action Network, was arrested in July along with Ginger Cassady, the organization’s executive director, after participating in a lockdown that halted pipeline construction in Hubbard County.

Sutherlin is charged with criminal theft for allegedly locking himself in construction machinery. He said the charge, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, is disproportionate to what he is accused of doing.

“This is clearly a blatant political choice intended to intimidate and deter free speech and to deter further protests,” Sutherlin said.

Case-by-case decisions

Hubbard County Prosecutor Jonathan Frieden, who oversees the prosecution of nearly 500 Line 3 protest cases, disputes that the charges have increased or are disproportionate.

Frieden said county prosecutors make their own prosecution decisions based on the law and the facts of each case. He said criminal theft cases typically involve people locking themselves into property or equipment and denying their owner the use of it.

“Most of the time, it’s $ 500,000 or a million dollar equipment,” Frieden said. “Not being able to be used even for a short time usually costs thousands and thousands of dollars in lost income or productivity.”

Jonathan Frieden (company file photo)

Jonathan Frieden (company file photo)

Law enforcement officials say the actions of some protesters were not only criminal, but also a danger to themselves or others.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida has overseen his county’s law enforcement response to several Line 3 protests. He does not decide how to charge those arrested but makes recommendations to the district attorney’s office. county.

Guida said many of the protesters were peaceful and law-abiding. But he said some are trying to get arrested and disrupt the justice system.

“I’ve had many times where people have said, ‘Hey, I’m getting arrested today. What should I do ? “,” Guida said. “They are there to be arrested, which is unfortunate because the justice systems don’t need to get bogged down with all this criminal behavior.

In July, Guida and other officers extracted two protesters who crawled inside a pipe in Aitkin County. In court documents, authorities said the two refused to leave despite the danger of the extreme heat and lack of oxygen.

Protesters were charged with assisting the suicide attempt, but no one died. Guida said he believed the accusations were justified.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida.  (Dan Kraker / MPR News)

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida. (Dan Kraker / MPR News)

“They were actually ready to die in this pipe,” he said. “Instead of holding up a sign and being in public space and doing whatever is legal, they have entered this property. Put themselves in an absolutely 100 percent dangerous situation.”

Defense attorney Jordan Kushner, who represents the two defendants, disputes the charges.

“They brightened up the complaint in a way that made it seem like their life was in danger, and so they interpreted that to mean that they were trying to help each other kill themselves,” he said. “Don’t ask me to try to make sense of it.”

Shortage of defenders

The Line 3 protests have stretched the already thin offices of public defenders in the Ninth Judicial District of 17 counties in northwest Minnesota, which handles more than 250 pipeline cases.

Several defendants wrote to Public Defender William Ward last week, complaining about more than 100 people on a waiting list for a public defender in the Ninth Judicial District. They said the delay created many problems and violated their constitutional rights.

“Throughout this time, the court administration continued to schedule us for court appearances, while being reminded repeatedly that we lacked a real lawyer,” the letter said.

Kristine Kolar, the district’s chief public advocate, said the influx of pipeline cases combined with an existing staff shortage created the delay.

“Everyone is understaffed these days,” she said. “This extends to the legal arena and is particularly noticeable in rural Minnesota. “

The staff equivalent of just 2.75 public defenders have been assigned to Hubbard County, where the bulk of the cases are located, Kolar said. Then we quit.

“I’ve dropped to 1.25 attorneys in this county so I’m going to have to start mixing the attorneys just to handle the regular workload,” she said. “So there’s no way my office can handle this kind of influx of cases. “

Kolar contracts with outside lawyers to help represent pipeline defendants. She said all pipeline defendants in the Ninth Judicial District awaiting a public defender now have one.

Other defendants who do not meet the income threshold to qualify for a public defender scramble to find private attorneys, who are also scarce in northern Minnesota, Regan said.

Pressure on the courts

The influx of pipeline cases could also slow down courts, which will have to schedule hearings and potentially trials for the hundreds of defendants.

A spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch said some district courts use senior or semi-retired judges to handle pipeline cases. This allows ordinary judges to deal with existing cases without delay.

It is likely that many of these cases will not be resolved any time soon. Some defendants have sworn to fight the charges or try to get them dismissed. The defendants include notable leaders of the Line 3 resistance, such as Winona LaDuke.

Some will likely be resolved through plea deals, while others will be judged, Regan said. She said some defendants might argue their actions were justified because of the threat they believe the pipeline poses to the climate or the cultures of native tribes.

“The state is supposed to represent the public, not Enbridge,” she said. “In the interests of justice, and certainly given the global pandemic, we would expect the state to reconsider some of its prosecution rulings and act accordingly. “

Frieden said he hopes to resolve most cases within the next six months to a year. He said his office would continue to reassess cases and was open to plea deals involving lesser charges in some cases.

But unless there is new evidence, Frieden does not plan to dismiss the charges.

“They should have a consequence if they break the law,” he said.

About Keith Tatum

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