Hundreds of Line 3 protesters face prosecution

The determination of northern Minnesota authorities to hold Line 3 pipeline protesters accountable for their alleged criminal actions could “stress [the] rural Minnesota legal system,” says a recent MPR news report. Yet anyone who gets beyond the headline will quickly realize that the hundreds of pipeline protesters who’ve been arrested and charged appear to be far more stressed out than the authorities.

In March, [Carleton student Maya] Stovall was arrested along with other protesters who locked themselves together surrounding a prayer lodge at a pipeline construction site in Hubbard County. She was arrested twice more at other protest actions during the summer.

For the March incident, Stovall faces misdemeanor charges of trespassing, unlawful assembly and public nuisance. But after a July arrest in Pennington County, she received a more serious gross misdemeanor charge of trespassing on critical infrastructure.

Stovall had to wait months to be assigned a public defender to represent her.

“It’s stressful, a lot of weight from not being able to move forward,” she said. “I would really like to file motions to dismiss my charges, and I cannot do that without representation.”

Many of the activists who deliberately sought to be arrested apparently expected the usual slap on the wrist once fingerprinted and booked at the county jail. They were clearly unprepared for the seriousness with which local authorities viewed the disruption of the construction of the critical multi-billion-dollar pipeline project or of the gravity of the charges some now face in the courtroom.

Mac “Laurel” Sutherlin, who works for Rainforest Action Network, was arrested in July along with Ginger Cassady, the organization’s executive director, after they participated in a lockdown that shut down pipeline construction in Hubbard County.

Sutherlin is charged with felony theft for allegedly locking himself to construction equipment. He said the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, is disproportionate to what he’s accused of doing.

“It’s clearly a blatantly political choice meant to intimidate and dissuade free speech and to dissuade further protests,” Sutherlin said.

Yet northern Minnesota law enforcement authorities say the severity of the charges brought against the activists, including numerous felonies, reflects the seriousness of their alleged actions. And there’s no indication they plan to back down.

Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden, who’s overseeing prosecution of nearly 500 Line 3 protest cases, disputes that the charges have escalated, or are out of proportion.

Frieden said county attorneys make their own charging decisions based on the law and the facts of each case. He said the felony theft cases typically involve people locking themselves to property or equipment, and depriving its owner of using it.

“Most of the time, these are either $500,000 or million-dollar pieces of equipment,” Frieden said. “Them not being able to be used for even a short period of time usually costs thousands and thousands of dollars in lost revenue or lost productivity.”

While processing the protesters has been time-consuming for rural counties which were short staffed before the deluge of defendants, authorities say most activists who qualify have now been assigned a public defender. It will undoubtedly take many more months or longer to adjudicate the defendants’ cases, but authorities remain committed to holding them accountable.

Frieden said he hopes to work through most of the cases within the next six months to a year. He said his office will continue reevaluating cases, and is open to plea agreements involving lesser charges in some cases.

But unless there’s new evidence, Frieden doesn’t anticipate dismissing the charges.

“They should have a consequence if they broke the law,” he said.

What a concept. Holding alleged lawbreakers accountable for their actions. Frieden and his fellow prosecutors in northern Minnesota would do our legal system a great service by holding a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course for their counterparts in the Twin Cities, starting with Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.