BAGLEY, Minn-Was the crime necessary?
The charges may have been dismissed; the jury may have gone home; but that central question remained unanswered-at least on paper.
The question originated in 2016 when a group of environmental activists staged an act of civil disobedience near Leonard, Minn. They used bolt cutters to make their way into an Enbridge Energy Co. valve site and turned off the flow of oil. Describing themselves as "valve turners," they claimed they did it to combat climate change; they claimed it was necessary.
Nearly two years later, during a trial earlier this month in Bagley in Clearwater County, Judge Robert Tiffany dismissed the charges-based on the fact that the activists hadn't actually damaged the pipeline itself, ending the trial before that central question could be addressed. Emily Johnston, of Seattle, was charged with causing property damage to a pipeline. Both Annette Klapstein, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Benjamin Joldersma, of Seattle, had been charged with aiding the property damage of a pipeline.
The case brought mixed reactions from those watching. Some said the action was reckless and an unnecessary form of protest. Others-such as the protesters-said there were no other options and that it was a necessary action to combat global warming.
Either way, it was a case that may have set the groundwork for other similar cases down the road. Whether those cases prove successful in addressing that question is yet to be seen.
After the trial finished midway through the second day, Enbridge released a statement, explaining that it will not tolerate trespassing, vandalism or mischief and that it will continue to seek charges against those who commit such acts.
"The individuals involved in these activities claimed to be protecting the environment, but they did the opposite and put the environment and the safety of people at risk-including themselves, first responders and neighboring communities and landowners," the statement from Enbridge said.
Clearwater County Attorney Alan Rogalla declined to comment on the case outside of the actual facts involved.
State Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, who represents the area, released a statement, though, criticizing the protesters. Instead of allowing such acts, he said there should be laws protecting important infrastructure.
"Protesters have moved from shutting down freeways to now attacking our energy infrastructure. This is a very dangerous action that needs to be corrected in the next legislative session," Grossell said in an official release.
Michael Northbird, who's challenging Grossell for the 2A seat, took a different approach. He said the laws that need to be made stronger are those that protect private property against situations where eminent domain benefits private companies such as Enbridge rather than the public.
According to Enbridge representative Juli Kellner, there have been "fair and mutually acceptable" land agreements with the majority of private landowners involved in the current Enbridge Line 3 replacement project route. She clarified, though, that eminent domain can be used as a last resort in some cases. To do so, however, the company has to complete a regulatory application process with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
'The necessity defense'
Regardless, though, one of the central features of the case was something referred to as the "necessity defense." Essentially, it would have allowed the defendants to claim they committed the act as a way to avoid greater harm-namely climate change.
Even though the Minnesota valve turner case was dismissed before the jury could weigh in, the mere fact that the defendants were granted the right to use the necessity defense before the trial even started could set a precedence for future acts of civil disobedience in environmental activism.
According to environmental attorney Lance Long from Stetson University in Deland, Fla., the necessity defense has been allowed 19 times in cases focused on climate change. As with the local case in Clearwater County, none of the juries in those cases were able to decide the case based on the necessity defense.
Even though the Clearwater County case did not hinge on the defense, gaining access to it was no easy process. After the judge allowed the defendants to use the defense, the decision was appealed all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, who essentially supported a lower court's decision to allow the use of the defense. And that mere fact could have reverberating effects for future cases.
"The fact that it was recognized and allowed by the Minnesota Supreme Court is a significant precedent in favor of allowing juries to hear necessity defenses and not allowing a judge to summarily dismiss it in a pretrial motion," Long said.
But that precedent for the necessity defense doesn't guarantee a win. One of the elements of the necessity defense is showing that the defendants exhausted all other reasonable alternative options-therefore proving the need to resort to civil disobedience to prevent a greater harm.
When the Clearwater County case let out, defense attorney Lauren Regan spoke on the steps of the courthouse about how her clients had done exactly that.
"They had to establish that they had literally tried all reasonable, lawful alternatives before turning to civil disobedience," Regan told the small crowd that gathered for the trial. "Because of their breadth of experience and and decades they've spent working on these issues, they literally are a rare example of the activists who can say they tried everything before engaging in civil disobedience."
Grossell bristled at the idea of the necessity defense being applied to environmental activism. Yes, there are situations for the defense, he said, but the climate change debate is not one of them. He used the analogy of a person who broke into a building on a cold night to avoid freezing. That, he said, would be eligible for the necessity defense.
"It's setting a dangerous precedent," Grossell said. "You say you want to protect the environment, and yet you're going to risk damaging this pipeline and causing an environmental catastrophe ..."
Long disagrees, siding with the defendants. In an academic article he's co-writing on the subject, he argues that other legal alternatives "already failed to address the problem." He goes onto argue that the current presidential administration is actively working against environmentally friendly policies-and, therefore, making other options more difficult to utilize.
"They're shutting down all avenues of reasonable legal alternatives," Long said.