A Morton County jury found eight pipeline protesters guilty of disorderly conduct in the second Dakota Access-related case to go to trial.
The defendants, who ranged in age 23 to 57 years old and hailed from Hawaii to North Dakota, were all among the first arrested in the months-long protests that began along N.D. Highway 1806 in mid-August.
None of them will serve jail time, but South Central District Judge Cynthia Feland handed out fines and fees ranging from $1,250 to $1,685 — fines higher than one defense attorney said he'd seen in his 20-year career for a Class B misdemeanor. Those with criminal histories also got 10-day suspended sentences. Those without got deferred sentences, meaning their record will wipe clean if they stay out of trouble for the year.
The fines came after a request from Ladd Erickson, a special prosecutor for Morton County, who contends the protesters wanted to inflict harm on the state, people and police. He said he plans to step up the fines he asks for in later, more violent cases.
"There will be a reckoning for what our officers went through," Erickson said.
But the defense attorneys were aghast at the fines, which they said were very rare in B misdemeanor cases, and the imposition of $300 fees on people with public defenders.
Defense attorney Alex Reichert told the judge that a $1,000 fine was more than he'd seen imposed for this type of crime in his 20-year legal career. Defense attorney William Thomason called the fine "extremely unwarranted" and "unconscionable."
Feland insisted she was not treating the cases as special due to the ongoing protest.
"This court looks at every case individually," Feland said during the sentencing.
The eight defendants, represented by six different lawyers, were tried at the same time, but the jury was to consider their charges separately. They were accused of varied acts during Aug. 11 protests, including sitting on a gravel access road built by the company, pushing into law enforcement and standing in the road. It was the first day protesters were arrested while opposing the pipeline.
In finding the protesters guilty, the 7-person jury sided with Erickson, who contends they went beyond their First Amendment rights to protest and created hazards, obstructions and other harassment with no legitimate purpose.
“While I don’t doubt the sincerity of people," Erickson said of the protester's beliefs about the dangers of the pipeline. "We can’t have this. It affects other people’s rights.”
The defense attorneys argued their clients had a purpose -- exercising their free speech -- and that their actions did not cause the problems law enforcement alleged.
“Basically, what we have is somebody standing on a pile of rocks, in a public ditch with no one driving on it,” Thomason said of his client Jordan Walker, accused of sitting on the gravel access road built by the pipeline company.
“In the U.S.A., should a person be able to walk over and peacefully stand on rocks on public property?” Thomason asked. “What kind of country do you want this to be?”
Four law enforcement officers testified against the protesters Monday, with evidence ranging from an officer who remembered chasing a protester through private property and an officer who recalled seeing a protester get arrested on the gravel access road. While videos had been hotly debated in advance of the trial, the lawyers used only a few aerial shots from different points in the day.
On Tuesday, some of the defendants testified for themselves, proposing alternate versions of their stories and the reasons for their actions.
Kevin Decker, for example, said he never pushed Morton County Sheriff's Department Capt. Jay Gruebele, but was rather pushed from the agitated crowd behind him.
"I did not come to be arrested," Decker said counter to what Erickson has contended. "I came to stand up for the water."
After trial, one of the defendants, Malia Hulleman, said she believed there was bias among the jury, simply by virtue of them living in Morton County, where nearly everyone has been affected in some way.
"I would have been surprised had we been found not guilty," Hulleman said.
Erickson said he is planning to continue to prosecute the cases, though he acknowledged some cases would be dismissed due at least to lack of evidence collected, as happened for one defendant on Monday. He does not see it as an option for Morton County to drop the 600-plus cases, in part because the protest is ongoing.
"We're in the middle of this," he said.
Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at firstname.lastname@example.org