Legal Newsline

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Climate change activists charged with shutting down pipeline can present 'necessity defense'

By Elizabeth Alt | May 7, 2018

Natural gas 03

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) – The Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed the state of Minnesota’s appeal to allow climate activists charged for shutting down a petroleum pipeline the chance to present evidence to explain their actions.

The April 23 unpublished opinion by Judge Jill Halbrooks was joined by Judge Denise D. Reilly, marking the first time a U.S. jury will hear the first full climate necessity defense, according to a recent press release issued by nonprofit Climate Direct Action. 

Presiding Judge Francis J. Connolly dissented from the majority opinion.

In 2016, defendants Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston drove to the remote town of Leonard, Minnesota, and used bolt cutters to break the lock on a gate and shut down a pipeline valve to stop the flow of tar, the opinion stated. 

The act was part of a coordinated effort in four states, and “sought to prevent climate damage by stopping the flow of carbon-intensive tar sands" after trying "many different legal means to do so over many years,” according to the Climate Direct Action release

Benjamin Joldersma and Steven Liptay accompanied Klapstein and Johnston. The activists were either charged with several felonies or misdemeanors.

The activists sent notice that they would be using the “necessity defense,” and a hearing was held to hear the state’s objections. The defendants stated during the hearing that they wanted to express “their individual perceptions of the necessity of their actions in preventing environmental harm caused by the use of fossil fuels, particularly the tar sands oil carried by the pipeline with which they interfered,” according to the opinion.

The request for a necessity defense was granted, and Minnesota appealed the Clearwater County District Court’s order. In its appeal, the state claimed the evidence “will unnecessarily confuse the jury.”

Judge Jill Halbrooks noted that the state’s appeal is dismissed as the state did not prove that the order would have a significant impact on its prosecution or trial outcome. Halbrooks stated impact relies on assumptions about what the trial court might do, and what evidence would be presented.

In his dissent, Connolly agreed with the state’s argument that the necessity defense was not applicable in this case and argued that the trial court’s error will have “critical impact” on the state’s prosecution and trial outcome, specifically noting that the activists plan to bring expert witnesses to testify “at length about global warming and their belief that the federal government’s response has been ineffective.”

Connolly notes that “In Minnesota, the necessity defense is not available to individuals who decide to disobey the law despite other available legal alternatives…they elected to engage in criminal conduct…the undisputed facts of this case negate all three essential elements of the necessity defense.”

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Minnesota Court of Appeals