Criminal cases against Line 3 protesters stress rural Minnesota legal system

People with their hands cuffed behind their backs walk in a line.
Activists are walked through an Enbridge Line 3 pump station after being arrested near Park Rapids on June 7.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Maya Stovall was a student at Carleton College helping organize on climate issues when she learned about the Line 3 oil pipeline.

She decided to travel to northern Minnesota to join the protests against the pipeline — and kept going back.

“Fighting Line 3 felt like the thing to be doing,” said Stovall, 20, who is from Illinois and majoring in political science and international relations. “We can't have new fossil fuel infrastructure like Line 3 if we're going to have a breathable planet.”

In March, 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.

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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.”

Nearly 900 people have been arrested during protests against the Line 3 oil pipeline, which is being built in northern Minnesota. Most were cited with misdemeanors. But many, like Stovall, have been charged with gross misdemeanors, and some face felony charges. 

Two activists sit inside a boat named "Good Trouble."
Two activists sit in a boat named "Good Trouble" as they block a road to an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids on June 8.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The number of legal cases is straining resources in the northern Minnesota counties where most of the protests took place. In addition to waiting for months for a public defender, some defendants also argue that the charges they're facing are unfairly severe.

"What we are seeing at Line 3 are definitely more significant charges or serious charges with the potential for more serious punishments,” said Lauren Regan, executive director and a senior attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, which is helping represent pipeline activists. 

She said charges against Line 3 protesters have escalated since the protests began, even though she says their actions have been nonviolent and fairly run-of-the-mill acts of civil disobedience.

"You see the state ... getting real creative in sticking felonies to people that we would not expect otherwise to have felonies," Regan said.

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.

A person with an umbrella sits locked to construction equipment.
An activist uses an umbrella for shade as they sit locked into an excavator at an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids on June 7.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Case-by-case decisions

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."

Law enforcement officials say some protesters’ actions have been not only criminal, but a danger to themselves or others.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida oversaw his county's law enforcement response to several Line 3 protests. He doesn’t decide how to charge those arrested but makes recommendations to the county attorney’s office. 

Guida said many of the protesters have been peaceful and law-abiding. But he said some are trying to get arrested and disrupt the legal system. 

Activists gather around construction equipment.
Activists sit on and around construction equipment while occupying an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids on June 7.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

"I've had numerous times where people have said, ‘Hey, I'm getting arrested today. What do I need to do?’” Guida said. “They're there to get arrested, which is unfortunate because the court systems don't need to be bogged down with all these criminal behaviors.”

In July, Guida and other officers extracted two protesters who crawled inside a pipe in Aitkin County. In court documents, authorities said the two refused to leave despite being in danger from extreme heat and a lack of oxygen.

The protesters have been charged with felony aiding attempted suicide, though no one died. Guida said he believes the charges are justified.

"They were actually willing to die in that pipe,” he said. “Instead of holding up a sign and being in a public space and doing everything legal, they trespassed onto that property. They crawled into the back of a pipe, and they put themselves in a situation that was absolutely 100 percent very dangerous."

Defense attorney Jordan Kushner, who is representing the two defendants, disputes the charges.

“They jazzed up the complaint in a way that looked like their life was in danger, and therefore they took that to mean that they were trying to help each other kill themselves,” he said. “Don't ask me to try to make sense out of it.”

Police are seen between locked arms.
Activists lock arms as State Troopers direct traffic on Highway 71 as activists occupy an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids on June 7.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Shortage of defenders

The Line 3 protests have stretched the already-thin public defenders' offices in the 17-county Ninth Judicial District in northwest Minnesota, which is handling more than 250 pipeline cases.

Several defendants wrote to state public defender William Ward last week, complaining of more than 100 people being put on a waiting list for a public defender in the Ninth Judicial District. They said the delay had created numerous issues and violated their constitutional rights.

“Throughout this time, court administration continued to schedule us for court appearances, while being repeatedly reminded that we lacked any actual counsel,” the letter stated. 

Kristine Kolar, the district's chief public defender, said the influx of pipeline cases combined with an existing staffing shortage created the delay. 

“Everybody's understaffed these days,” she said. “It extends into the legal field, and it's particularly felt in rural Minnesota."

The staffing equivalent of just 2.75 public defenders were assigned to Hubbard County, where the bulk of the cases are, Kolar said. Then, one quit. 

“I’m down to 1.25 attorneys in that county, so I'm going to have to start shuffling attorneys just to handle the regular caseload,” she said. “So there's no way my office could handle this type of influx of cases.”

Kolar is contracting with outside attorneys to help represent the pipeline defendants. She said all of the pipeline defendants in the Ninth Judicial District waiting for a public defender have now been assigned one. 

Other defendants who don’t meet the income threshold to qualify for a public defender are scrambling to find private attorneys, which are also in short supply in northern Minnesota, Regan said.

Pressure on courts

The influx of pipeline cases also could slow down the courts, which will need to schedule hearings and potentially trials for the hundreds of defendants.

A spokesperson for the state judicial branch says some district courts are using senior or semi-retired judges to handle pipeline cases. That allows regular judges to handle existing caseloads without delays.

It's likely that many of these cases won't be resolved anytime soon. Some defendants have vowed to fight the charges, or try to get them dismissed. The defendants include some notable leaders of the Line 3 resistance, such as Winona LaDuke.

A woman walks with her fist in the air.
Activist and Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke marches with a group to the Treaties not Tar Sands rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on Aug. 25. The rally called on Gov. Tim Walz and President Joe Biden to halt construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Some likely will be resolved through plea agreements, while others will go to trial, Regan said. She said some defendants may argue that their actions were justified because of the threat they believe the pipeline poses to the climate or the cultures of Indigenous tribes.

“The state is supposed to be representing the public, not Enbridge,” she said. “In the interest of justice, and certainly given the global pandemic, we would expect the state to reconsider some of its charging decisions and act accordingly.”

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.