Aaron Turgeon

Aaron Turgeon was acquitted of one felony charge and two misdemeanor charges related to him flying a drone during a pipeline protest.

CAROLINE GRUESKIN Bismarck Tribune

Twelve warrants were issued in May when Dakota Access Pipeline protesters did not show up for hearings or trials scheduled in Morton County. 

Warrants are not a problem unique to the protester cases, but they account for a significant number of the approximately 596 cases still open.

According to court records, there are 109 pipeline-related cases marked "inactive," which usually means an arrest warrant has been issued. That number has been increasing, as more cases head to trial and Morton County state's attorney files new charges against people whose cases were previously dismissed for lack of evidence. 

Bobbi Weiler, whose client Brian Renville Jr. got a bench warrant after he lost touch with her, said this was her first case in which a protester did not show. She said she may have had a bad address or phone number, as she has not been able to reach him since October.

Protester clients, whom she represents on a contract basis for the public defenders, are either "really involved or I haven't heard from them," she said.

Sam Saylor, attorney for the Water Protector Legal Collective, said it is common after large arrests that some people will "fall off the radar." Some don't know about their court dates, he said.

Misdemeanor warrants are rarely served out-of-state, so it is unlikely someone would be extradited back to North Dakota to face their charges. 

But Saylor said the warrants probably will catch up with people. For example, the warrant may surface during a background check when people apply for jobs or professional licenses. 

Saylor is trying to alert people to their warrants so they can get their cases resolved.

In May, 46 cases were closed, court records show. Of those, 22 were dismissed by the prosecutor, though new charges could be filed in the future. Another 12 cases were dismissed and defendants were re-charged with higher level misdemeanors. Ten people pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in exchange for fines under $1,000 and a deferred sentence.

Most of the cases handled in May related to an incident on Oct. 22 when 126 people were arrested walking across private property to a pipeline construction site. The prosecutors have been dismissing most of these cases and re-charging the defendants.  

One person, Aaron Turgeon, who was accused of recklessly endangering police and civilians with his drone, was acquitted by Judge Allan Schmalenberger.

Alex Wilson's case was dismissed midway through trial after South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty found the prosecutors had not showed probable cause that the protest was tumultuous and disorderly enough to constitute a riot.

According to court records, a total of 250 pipeline-related cases have been closed. 

The Morton County State's Attorney's Office did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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