Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Legal Cost of Throwing a Monkey Wrench

New York Times

SALT LAKE CITY — Tim DeChristopher became convinced last year that global warming’s potential effects were so urgent and dire that direct action was needed. The niceties of debate and environmental lobbying were not getting the job done, he said.

So in December Mr. DeChristopher went to a federal auction of oil and gas leases — offered in the Bush administration’s closing days and even then the subject of protests and lawsuits — and bid on contracts that he had neither the money nor intent to actually fulfill. “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.

... Given Mr. DeChristopher’s passionate public admissions — though he has entered a plea of not guilty — how will the judge frame the discussion of guilt or innocence before a jury? And will federal energy policies be in the docket with him, as he hopes, up for critique as part of his defense?
... Mr. DeChristopher’s lawyer, Ronald J. 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.
What is not in doubt is that most of the specific leases Mr. DeChristopher protested — many of them near national parks or monuments — have not only been deferred or taken off the table by federal land managers in the Obama administration but also scathingly disavowed. A federal judge earlier this year ordered the leases halted pending further review, citing “deficiencies” in the government’s pre-auction assessments.
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.
“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.
If convicted, Mr. DeChristopher faces up to five years in prison on each of the two counts and up to $750,000 in fines.

To read more about this interesting protest, CLICK HERE.


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