Environmental activist's conviction overturned; He claims it was a 'necessity' to shut down oil pipeline

By Rich Peters | Apr 12, 2019

SEATTLE (Legal Newsline) – The state of Washington Court of Appeals this week overturned the conviction of activist Ken Ward, citing the denial of his Sixth Amendment right to present the “necessity defense” to a jury of his peers.

"Ward argues that the trial court denied his constitutional right to present a defense by granting the state's motion in limine striking all testimony and evidence of necessity," Judge David S. Mann wrote in the April 8 ruling. "We agree."

Ken Ward was among four other known activists who called themselves the “Valve Turners.” On Oct. 11, 2016, they temporarily shut down all pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Canada into the United States. He was arrested at the pipeline facility and charged with burglary in the second degree, criminal trespass in the second degree and criminal sabotage.

The judge’s ruling to overturn the non-violent protest case is the first along the lines of the necessity defense and a win for environmental protestors across the country.

A defendant who raises the necessity defense admits to committing what would normally be a criminal act, but claims the circumstances justified it.

“Kenneth Ward appeals his conviction for burglary in the second degree after he broke into a Kinder Morgan pipeline facility and turned off a valve, which stopped the flow of Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties,” Mann wrote. 

“Ward intended to protest the continued use of tar sands oil, which he contends significantly contributes to climate change, and the inaction by governments to meaningfully address the crisis of climate change.”

Ward argued that his acts were out of the environment’s best interest and were completely justifiable. 

“An act is justified if it by necessity is taken in a reasonable belief that the harm or evil to be prevented by the act is greater than the harm caused by violating the criminal statute,” the ruling states.

The state argued it was unreasonable for Ward to think the "commission of this crime was necessary to avoid or minimize harm" when legal alternatives were available and that all he did was inconvenience pipeline employees, the ruling states.

“Ward presented sufficient evidence that he reasonably believed the crimes he committed were necessary to minimize the harms that he perceived. Ward’s offer of proof included evidence of how past acts of civil disobedience have been successful, evidence of previous climate activism campaigns, and evidence of his own personal successes in effectuating change through civil disobedience," Mann wrote. 

"Specifically, Ward offered evidence that he has been working with environmental issues for more than 40 years but that the majority of his efforts failed to achieve effective results.”

The state has 30 days from the April 8 ruling to appeal the decision to the Washington Supreme Court and 20 days to file a motion with the Court of Appeals to reconsider. If no appeal is filed, the state may re-file the charges and a third jury trial will be scheduled in Skagit County, the Climate Defense Project reported.

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