A state District Court judge on Tuesday dismissed felony property damage charges against three protesters who planned to defend their actions — tampering with Enbridge pipeline equipment — as a justified response to climate change.
Acting on a motion from defense attorneys, Clearwater County District Court Judge Robert Tiffany threw out the charges, ruling there was not enough evidence regarding the October 2016 protest to prove property damage. The incident took place about 35 miles northwest of Bemidji. The trial started Monday in Bagley, Minn.
Four protesters, all members of the activist group Climate Direct Action, were originally charged after breaking through a fence around oil pipeline equipment, and then turning emergency valves on two pipelines. One protester took video of the others, and they all waited for law enforcement to arrest them.
Emily Nesbitt Johnston and Annette Klapstein, both of the Seattle area, turned the valves and were charged with felony damage to property, aiding and abetting felony damage and gross misdemeanor trespassing. Steven Liptay, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was charged with the same, though he’s not part of the current trial. Benjamin Joldersma, of Seattle, was on trial for conspiracy.
“I am thrilled to not be going to jail and not having felony charges, but it’s very anticlimactic,” Johnston said in an interview. That’s because she and her co-defendants never got to mount a “necessity defense” — admitting they committed what normally might be a crime, but instead was a necessary action to prevent a greater harm.
The defendants argue they were preventing environmental damage caused by fossil fuel use.
In a statement, Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge said it “maintains that the actions by individuals in 2016 to trespass on our facility and attempt to tamper with energy infrastructure were reckless and dangerous.” By doing so, the protesters put the “environment and the safety of people at risk.”
Enbridge runs six pipelines across northern Minnesota, the largest conduits of Canadian oil into the United States.
Some charges had been dismissed before the trial began on Monday with jury selection. Legal arguments had just begun Tuesday when the defense asked for dismissal and Tiffany agreed.
“We made a motion that the state had not met the burden of proof for the criminal charge,” said Lauren Regan, an attorney for the defendants.
The protesters had contacted Enbridge before actually turning the emergency shut-off valves, allowing the company to shut down the lines themselves, Regan said. “The turning of the valve was largely symbolic.”
On the same day as the Minnesota pipeline protest, Climate Direct Action had similar demonstrations in Walhalla, N.D., Anacortes, Wash., and Coal Banks Landing, Mont. Several arrests were also made at those events, and four men were later convicted of felonies.
One of them, Michael Eric Foster of Seattle, a valve turner on TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, was sentenced earlier this year to one year in prison.
The Minnesota trial had garnered attention in legal circles after Tiffany last October allowed the necessity defense. The state appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but the court, on a 2-1 vote in April, sided with Tiffany.
However, last week Tiffany ruled that the defendants could not call several expert witnesses on climate change, essentially arguing that the jury had enough knowledge on the subject.
“That pulled the rug out on us,” Johnston said. “I’m a poet from Seattle. Why would [the jury] believe me?”