Defendants seek dismissal of Line 3 protest charges – InForum

AITKIN, Minn. — As Shanai Matteson walked out of the Aitkin County Courthouse in the glorious sunshine Thursday morning, her supporters waiting outside were jubilant.

A judge had just acquitted Matteson of a felony charge of aiding and abetting trespass stemming from last year’s protests against the Line 3 pipeline.

“The judge made the right decision today in acquitting me of these ridiculous charges,” Matteson told those gathered on the courthouse lawn.

Matteson’s case was one of hundreds still pending more than a year after protest actions against the Line 3 project. The replacement pipeline, built along a new route through northern Minnesota , was completed last year and began transporting oil in October.

Shanai Matteson and her attorney, Jordan Kushner, speak to supporters and the media outside the Aitkin County Courthouse Thursday after a judge acquitted Matteson. Other self-proclaimed water protectors who protested construction of the Line 3 pipeline are still facing charges in Aitkin and other Minnesota counties more than a year after the incidents.

Kirsti Marohn / MPR News

About a thousand people were arrested during these actions. Some have been charged with relatively serious crimes, including felonies and felonies.

Opponents of Line 3 have asked that the remaining charges be dismissed. They also asked Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to appoint Attorney General Keith Ellison as a special prosecutor to review the cases.

The charges against Matteson stemmed from an incident dating back to January 2021. Opponents of Enbridge’s plans to build a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline gathered for a rally at a welcome center for protectors of water in Aitkin County.

On this cold winter’s day, Matteson, 40, an artist and community activist who grew up in Palisade, told the crowd he was looking for people who were potentially arrestable, “if that’s what he is about today”. She urged them to fill out forms in case they needed legal support.

“So if you want to do it, and I hope some of you will think about it. Over 40 people have been arrested so far,” Matteson can be heard in a video of the event.

Later in the day, scores of protesters, who call themselves water protectors, marched to a Line 3 construction site. Some were arrested and charged with trespassing.

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A man is arrested after failing to disperse from the active Line 3 construction site near Aitkin, Minnesota on January 9, 2021. Local sheriffs arrested about six protesters during the protest.

Ben Hovland for MPR News

Matteson never went to the site. But prosecutors then watched a video of his remarks. Five months later, she received a summons by mail accusing her of having aided and abetted the intrusion on a pipeline, considered essential public infrastructure.

But on Thursday, before the defense presented its case, District Court Judge Leslie May Metzen acquitted Matteson on insufficient evidence.

Matteson’s attorney, Jordan Kushner, said the judge made the right decision.

“The idea that someone can be prosecuted for a crime – a serious crime, a relatively serious crime – simply for giving a speech and being politically involved, is very dangerous,” he said.

Matteson said she believed she was targeted by charges because she is a local resident and active in the Line 3 opposition. She said it was a stressful experience.

“I have two young children. They knew I was facing up to a year in prison,” she said. daughter? We have heard some things that she is a criminal.

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Protesters Mary Rosenberg, left, holds a sign as protesters halt work at a Line 3 construction site north of Aitkin, Minnesota on January 9, 2021.

Ben Hovland for MPR News

Those impacts won’t go away even with an acquittal, Matteson said.

Aitkin County District Attorney Jim Ratz did not respond to an interview request.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida disputes that the Line 3 protesters were singled out or treated unfairly. Guida said his office simply enforces existing laws and passes the information to the county attorney’s office, which decides how to charge Matteson’s case.

“She was asking people to keep space and encourage them to get arrested,” he said. “And, in this scenario, we kind of think you’re inciting these people to get arrested.”

But Guida also said complicity is a difficult charge to prove, and he argues the court system ultimately makes the final decision.

Some of the other water protectors who cheered the decision outside the courthouse last week are facing their own criminal charges in Aitkin and other Minnesota counties.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of environmental nonprofit Honor the Earth, said she looked forward to more Line 3 defendants being vindicated.

“We’re not criminals, we’re water protectors,” LaDuke said. “I think our charges should be dropped and we should all be awarded Minnesota State Medals for protecting Minnesota waters.”

Protests against the proposed pipeline have taken place at several locations along the pipeline’s 330-mile route. Opponents of Line 3 say criminal cases are handled differently in different counties.

Kushner said a Hubbard County judge dismissed several felony theft cases against people who locked themselves in construction equipment, depriving Enbridge of its use.

Boston University professor Nathan Phillips said he was arrested in Hubbard County in June 2021 while walking along a county road with several dozen others, chanting and carrying signs.

“I was using my freedom of political expression granted by the Constitution, and I was arrested anyway,” he said.

Other protesters, not Phillips, blocked a tractor-trailer from entering a construction site and two people locked themselves in the trailer of the tractor-trailer. Phillips was charged with misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly. The charges were dismissed last month.

However, in Aitkin County, felony charges of assisting suicide are still pending against two people who crawled inside a pipe and refused to get out. Authorities said they were in danger from extreme heat and lack of oxygen.

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors said they tried to pursue charges reflecting the behavior, disruption and cost of resources associated with the unprecedented scale of the Line 3 protests.

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Shanai Matteson is hugged by Winona LaDuke, executive director of environmental advocacy group Honor the Earth, after a judge acquitted Matteson of criminal charges. LaDuke herself is facing charges in three Minnesota counties related to Line 3 operations and believes all charges against the water protectors should be dropped.

Kirsti Marohn / MPR News

“I think we, from the start, were looking for both fairness and consistency,” said Nate Stumme, chief of the criminal division of the St. Louis County District Attorney’s Office, where about 32 protest cases from line 3 are still current.

Some of the cases involving Native American defendants have gone to tribal court.

A White Earth Tribal Court recently dismissed charges against three water protectors accused of criminal trespassing during an eight-day camp held on the Mississippi River in June 2021.

The three argued that because the camp was located on territory ceded by the Ojibwe tribes to the federal government in an 1855 treaty, their nonviolent actions were lawful exercises of Indigenous sovereign rights.

“It’s not a crime to assert our treaty rights,” said one of the three, Nancy Beaulieu, a member of the Leech Lake reserve who lives near Bemidji. “And being tried as a crime and having to continue to reassert our treaty rights is something that we cannot afford as Indigenous peoples.

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