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Rodrick Joe stood trial Thursday for a felony charge of tampering with a public service in Morton County. Surrogate Judge Daniel El-Dweek convicted Joe on the charge related to a railroad protest west of Mandan in November 2016 by protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Rodrick Joe has a chance to keep his clean record after he was convicted Thursday as the first Dakota Access Pipeline protester to sustain a felony conviction at trial.

Surrogate Judge Daniel El-Dweek convicted the 21-year-old of felony tampering with a public service, stemming from Joe's arrest on Nov. 15, 2016, at a protest on the railroad tracks crossing Morton County Road 82 west of Mandan.

"I'm a little disappointed," Joe said after hearing his conviction from the all-day felony court trial at the Morton County Courthouse.

But with a 360-day deferred imposition of sentence, Joe could see that felony conviction wiped away. Before Thursday's trial, he had no criminal history.

"I want you to know you are getting a chance here," El-Dweek told Joe. "You have a chance to right the ship and do good." 

Defense attorney Amanda Harris, who teared up during Joe's sentencing, spoke of her client's goals and good deeds, of a young man who takes care of his grandmother and has considered military service or a trade school.

"Overall, Mr. Joe is a really good kid, your honor," Harris said after taking a moment to collect herself.

A $415 fine and forfeiture of his $1,500 bond accompanied Joe's deferred imposition of sentence.

From here, Joe said he'll return to his life out west. He said he took a train and plane from California with his uncle to attend his trial.

"Go home, find me another job, stay out of trouble," he said of his plans.

Harris said Joe lost his construction job after his arrest and was working at a pizzeria but is now unemployed. Joe said he would like to be a carpenter one day.

Three witnesses testified at trial, including Morton County Sheriff's Sgt. Dion Bitz, former BNSF Mandan terminal manager Chris Sanford and Mandan Police Sgt. Brent Wilmeth. Their testimony concluded before noon Thursday.

What took up much of the afternoon were Harris' and prosecutor Brian Grosinger's debates over the legal definitions relating to Joe's charge, including "tampering," "public service" and "substantial."

More narrowly, they differed on the two eastbound coal trains delayed by 105 minutes that day due to the protesters on the tracks.

Harris said the delay caused no substantial interruption or financial loss to BNSF, whose coal transport she said wasn’t a government function. Grosinger said the Public Service Commission governs the railroads, and the trains' coal was bound for power plants in Minnesota.

In her arguments, Harris said no damage or vandalism could be directly attributed to Joe, whose arrest was photographed.

Protesters that day were demonstrating in support of missing and murdered indigenous women as a perceived result of the oil industry. About 400 protesters marched south along County Road 82, just north of a DAPL equipment yard, before law enforcement stopped them at the tracks, arresting 25 people.

Harris motioned to dismiss the case for insufficient evidence, but El-Dweek disagreed and denied her motion.

After an hour's recess before he ruled, El-Dweek said he was convinced by the prosecution's evidence. 

"A train cannot operate with people on the track or near the track," he said, adding that the railroad in question that day was considered "public transportation" in part due to the trains' delivery of fuel to power plants.

For sentencing, Grosinger recommended 18 months suspended for that time and unsupervised probation, as well as a $560 fine, 20 hours community service or an equivalent fine. 

He also said BNSF is not seeking restitution. 

"These are dangerous situations," Grosinger said in closing. "They're dangerous to the officers. They're dangerous to the citizens, meaning the defendants and protesters."

Harris recommended a yearlong deferred imposition of sentence and forfeiture of Joe's bond.

"His intent wasn't to put anyone in danger or damage any property," she said.

El-Dweek spoke directly to Joe before his sentencing. 

"I'm cognizant, sir, and I honor your First Amendment rights and right to assemble," he said. "The First Amendment is not without its limit. This case presents a situation when these limits of the First Amendment come into clear view."

Hannah Grover and John Platner were to stand trial alongside Joe for the same crime; however, Harris said Grover's case settled hours before trial. Platner's trial was continued to March.

At least two other defendants are set for another felony court trial before El-Dweek to begin this morning at the Morton County Courthouse, on similar charges from the same protest event.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Crime and Courts Reporter