The Dernogalizer

November 18, 2009

College Student Faces Major Jail Time for Slowing Oil and Gas Leases

Filed under: Energy/Climate,National Politics — Matt Dernoga @ 12:29 pm
Tags: ,

I had this NY Times article from over a month ago brought to my attention.  An activist named Tim DeChristopher decided to get in the way of the auction of oil and gas leases by bidding millions on the contracts himself, even though he had no intention of actually paying for them.  Unfortunately, the legal implications of this action are pretty severe

“My intention was to cause as much of a disruption to the auction as I could,” said Mr. DeChristopher, a soft-spoken 27-year-old economics student at the University of Utah. “Making that decision — that keeping the oil in the ground was worth going to prison — that was the decision I made.”

Now, as his federal criminal case nears trial — he is charged with two felony counts of interfering with an auction and making false statements on bidding forms — a broader debate with legal, political and environmental threads is unfolding from here to Washington about what he did and what it means.”

I for one think it will be extremely interesting to see the end result of this trial, and I’m rooting for DeChristopher to be found in the right, although the odds appear stacked against him.

“Mr. Yengich, a veteran of civil rights battles in Utah — he defended protesters against President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and anti-nuclear activists in the 1990s — has asked Judge Dee Benson of Federal District Court to allow a so-called necessity defense at the trial. That would enable Mr. DeChristopher to argue that he faced a “choice of evils” that justified breaking the law.

Legal scholars say such defenses are rarely allowed by judges and are rarely successful with juries. Judge Benson is expected to rule within the next month.”

The interesting wrench in this case in my opinion is that after the Obama Administration took over, they deferred or removed the leases anyways because the methodology used by the Bush Administration wasn’t compliant with regulations, in other words, the law!  Most of the leases were near national parks and monuments.

“If convicted, Mr. DeChristopher faces up to five years in prison on each of the two counts and up to $750,000 in fines.

Legal scholars say case law about the necessity defense, especially in civil disobedience or protest cases, usually requires that a complicated series of hurdles be cleared. Defendants must show that they faced a choice of evils: to break a law or to allow some other bad result to proceed.

Part of the framework requires a judge, or a jury, to weigh how bad the result would have been, and for whom, if the defendant had not acted, and how imminent the harm actually was.

“The evil you choose must outweigh the evil you avoid, based on some kind of objective judgment about what is the greatest social net benefit in the situation,” said Marc O. DeGirolami, an assistant professor of law at St. John’s University in New York.

Even if Judge Benson prohibits a formal necessity defense, it is possible a consideration of Mr. DeChristopher’s intent, and thus a discussion of government impropriety, could seep into the proceedings. A witness who blurts out something about government failings or the threat of global warming could plant a seed of alternative interpretation — or doubt — in the minds of jurors.

“He’s not trying to get 12 jurors to agree with him; he only needs one,” said Paul G. Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah and a former federal judge. “And on any jury there could be at least one avid environmentalist or outdoor enthusiast that could prove fertile ground for DeChristopher’s arguments.”

Anyone aware of the consequences of burning that oil and gas knows that DeChristopher chose the lesser of two evils.  A ruling in this case in his favor could unleash a precedent for activists to use more aggressive direct action techniques to disrupt fossil fuel production and consumption, based on necessity defense and a “choice of evils”.

The question is, is our nation going to jail people trying to save civilization, or those who are destroying it?

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