University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher, who crashed a Bureau of Land Management auction in an effort to keep public lands out of oil and gas companies’ slippery hands, is going to have a rough semester.
According to a New York Times piece, DeChristopher currently faces felony charges for interfering with an auction and making false statements on bidding forms.
But at least his actions seem to have had their intended affect.
During the Bush administrations’ final days, the gas and oil leases, many of which were near national parks and monuments, were already generating large numbers of protests due to “deficiencies in the government’s pre-auction assessments,” according to the Times.
But some say that DeChristopher’s actions helped bring the issue of the leases even further out into the public eye, where they drew attention from both the media and land managers. Since the December protest, federal land managers have taken many of the leases that DeChristopher protested off of the table.
“My intention was to cause as much of a disruption to the auction as I could,” said DeChristopher in a recent interview. “Making that decision – that keeping the oil in the ground was worth going to prison – that was the decision I made.”
Now, amidst the leasing victory, the 27-year-old economics student readies himself for an intense legal battle that will open up a broader debate about innocence and guilt.
His attorney, Ronald J. Yengich, will argue that DeChristopher was facing a “choice of evils” that justified him breaking the law.
This argument is known as a necessity defense, and it’s one that DeChristopher’s attorney plans on using to its full extent. It requires, in part, that a judge or jury weigh how bad the results would have been if the defendant had not acted.
“Bush and the B.L.M. should be on trial here,” said Yengich, referring to the Bureau of Land Management.
But even though Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose agency oversees a large portion of the nation’s public lands, recently admitted that there was a “headlong rush to leasing in the prior administration that led to the kinds of shortcuts we have demonstrated,” many legal scholars remain skeptical that the proposed defense will actually work.
Others, however, believe that a judge or jury could find that DeChristopher was justified in breaking the law.
Said Paul G. Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah and a former federal judge, “He’s not trying to get 12 jurors to agree with him; he only needs one. And on any jury there could be at least one avid environmentalist or outdoor enthusiast that could prove fertile ground for DeChristopher’s arguments.”
If found guilty, DeChristopher faces up to five years in prison on each of the two counts and up to $750,000 in fines.
Despite the long road ahead, DeChristopher feels vindicated that many of the leases have been put by the wayside.
“I thought of yelling something or throwing a shoe [at the auction],” he said. “What I did was far more effective than I could have been with a shoe.”