Defendants seek dismissal of Line 3 protest charges

People stand outside a large brick building.
A sign reading “Water is Life” is displayed outside the Aitkin County Courthouse on July 14 as demonstrators rally before the trial of Shanai Matteson of Palisade, Minn. A judge acquitted Matteson on charges that she aided and abetted trespassing last year in connection with protests over the Line 3 oil pipeline project, saying there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

As Shanai Matteson walked out of the Aitkin County Courthouse into the bright sunshine Thursday morning, her supporters waiting outside were jubilant.

A judge had just acquitted Matteson of a gross misdemeanor charge of aiding and abetting trespassing stemming from last year’s protests over the Line 3 oil pipeline.

"The judge made the right decision today in acquitting me on these ridiculous charges,” Matteson told those gathered on the courthouse lawn.

People stand outside a large brick building.
Shanai Matteson and her attorney, Jordan Kushner, address supporters and media outside the Aitkin County Courthouse on July 14 after a judge acquitted Matteson. Other self-described water protectors who protested the construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline are still facing charges in Aitkin and other Minnesota counties more than a year after the incidents.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Matteson’s case was one of hundreds still pending more than a year after protest actions over the Line 3 project. The replacement pipeline, built along a new route across northern Minnesota, was completed last year and began transporting oil in October.

Roughly a thousand people were arrested during those actions. Some were charged with relatively serious crimes, including gross misdemeanors and felonies.

Line 3 opponents have called for the remaining charges dismissed. They’ve also asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to appoint Attorney General Keith Ellison as a special prosecutor to review the cases.

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The charges against Matteson stemmed from an incident dating back to January of 2021. Opponents of Enbridge's plans to build a new Line 3 crude oil pipeline gathered for a rally at a welcome center for water protectors in Aitkin County.

Police arrest a man.
A man is arrested after failing to disperse from the active Line 3 construction site near Aitkin, Minn., on Jan. 9. Local sheriffs detained approximately six demonstrators during the protest.
Ben Hovland for MPR News | 2021

On that cold winter day, Matteson, 40, an artist and community activist who grew up in Palisade, told the crowd they were looking for people who might be a position to potentially be arrested, "if that's what it comes to today." She urged them to fill out forms in case they needed legal support.

"So if you want to do that, and I hope some of you will consider that. Over 40 people have been arrested so far,” Matteson can be heard saying in a video of the event.

Later that day, many of the protesters, who call themselves water protectors, drove to a Line 3 construction site. Some were arrested and charged with trespassing.

People hold signs in front of construction equipment.
Protesters Mary Rosenberg, left, holds up a sign as protesters halt work at a Line 3 construction site north of Aitkin, Minn., on Jan. 9.
Ben Hovland for MPR News | 2021

Matteson never went to the site. But prosecutors later watched a video of her remarks. Five months later, she received a summons in the mail charging her with aiding and abetting trespassing on a pipeline, which is considered critical public infrastructure.

But on Thursday, before the defense presented its case, District Court Judge Leslie May Metzen acquitted Matteson based on insufficient evidence. 

Matteson's attorney, Jordan Kushner, said the judge made the right decision.

"The idea that someone could be prosecuted for a crime  – a gross misdemeanor offense, a relatively serious crime – just for making a speech and being involved politically, is very dangerous,” he said.

Matteson said she believes she was singled out for charges because she's a local resident and active in the Line 3 opposition. She said it's been a stressful experience.

"I have two young children. They knew that I was facing the possibility of up to a year in jail,” she said. “My mother and father who live here in Aitkin, they have people ask them, ‘What's going on with your daughter? We heard some things that she's a criminal.’"

Those impacts won't go away even with an acquittal, Matteson said.

Aitkin County Attorney Jim Ratz didn't respond to a request for an interview.

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida
Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida on Dec. 10.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2020

Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida disputes that Line 3 protesters have been singled out or treated unfairly. Guida said his office simply enforces existing laws, and forwards information to the county attorney's office, who decided how to charge Matteson's case.

"She was asking people to hold space and encourage them to get arrested,” he said. “And, in that scenario, we kind of believe that you're instigating those people getting arrested."

But Guida also said aiding and abetting is a difficult charge to prove, and he supports the court system ultimately making the final decision.

Some of the other water protectors cheering that decision outside the courthouse last week are facing their own criminal charges in Aitkin and other Minnesota counties.

Winona LaDuke, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Honor the Earth, said she's looking forward to more Line 3 defendants being vindicated.

"We're not criminals, we're water protectors,” LaDuke said. “I feel that our charges should be dropped, and we should all get medals from the state of Minnesota for protecting the waters of Minnesota.”

People stand outside a large brick building.
Shanai Matteson is hugged by Winona LaDuke, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Honor the Earth, after a judge acquitted Matteson of criminal charges. LaDuke herself faces charges in three Minnesota counties related to Line 3 activities, and believes all charges against water protectors should be dropped.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Different outcomes

Protests over the pipeline project took place at several locations along the pipeline's 330-mile route. Line 3 opponents say the criminal cases are being handled differently by different counties.

Kushner said a Hubbard County judge dismissed several cases of felony theft against people who locked themselves to construction equipment, depriving Enbridge of its use.

Two activists sit chained together around construction equipment.
Two activists who declined to give their names sit chained together around a piece of constuction equipment at an occupied Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids, Minn., on June 7.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Nathan Phillips, a Boston University professor, said he was arrested in Hubbard County in June 2021 while walking alongside a county road with several dozen others, chanting and carrying signs. 

 "I was using my constitutionally granted freedom of political speech, and I was arrested anyway,” he said.

Other protesters, not Phillips, blocked a semi-truck from entering a work site, and two people locked themselves to the semi’s trailer. Phillips was charged with misdemeanor public nuisance and unlawful assembly. The charges were dismissed last month.

However, in Aitkin County, felony charges of aiding attempted suicide are still pending against two people who crawled inside a pipe and refused to come out. Authorities said they were in danger from extreme heat and a lack of oxygen.

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors say they tried to apply charges that reflected the behavior, disruption and cost of resources associated with the unprecedented scale of the Line 3 protests.

“I think we, from the get-go, were seeking both fairness and consistency,” said Nate Stumme, head of the criminal division in St. Louis County attorney’s office, where about 32 Line 3 protest cases are still pending.

Five protesters hold signs and flags against the pipeline.
About 50 people gathered at the Prairie River near Grand Rapids in March on the 30th anniversary of the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. The company that succeeded Lakehead, Enbridge Energy, is now constructing a replacement Line 3 pipeline.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2021

Tribal sovereignty

Some of the cases involving defendants who are Native American have been moved to tribal court. 

A White Earth tribal court recently dismissed charges against three water protectors charged with criminal trespassing during an eight-day camp held at the Mississippi River in June 2021.

The three argued that because the camp was located on territory ceded by Ojibwe tribes to the federal government in an 1855 treaty, their nonviolent actions were lawful exercises of sovereign Indigenous rights.

“It is not a crime to assert our treaty rights,” said one of the three, Nancy Beaulieu, a member of the Leech Lake reservation who lives near Bemidji. “And to be tried as a crime and have to continue to reaffirm our treaty rights is something we can't afford as Native peoples.”