Keith Johnson, Deseret News
The defense of a University of Utah student accused of placing bogus bids in a federal oil and gas lease auction took a major hit Monday as a federal judge ruled out his planned defense strategy.
In a decision filed Monday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson not only rejected the request made by Tim DeChristopher's attorneys for a hearing to present evidence, he also granted the prosecutors' request that the "necessity defense" be barred.
His attorneys, led by Ron Yengich, argued that DeChristopher, 27, acted out of necessity to prevent illegal government action, making a "choice of evils" on a December day last year when he placed bids on and won 14 parcels of land totaling $1.7 million that he never intended to buy. He was later indicted for providing a false statement and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.
Court documents state that DeChristopher believed his actions would combat the "government's violation of its own laws and regulations and the consequential exacerbation of global warming and climate change, and destruction of irreplaceable natural and cultural resources."
Yengich reiterated that notion in September as he compared his client to historical protesters such as Rosa Parks and St. Francis of Assisi and said that while DeChristopher's protest was "not typical," it was done out of necessity because he was seeking to combat an outgoing government he believed was engaged in illegal acts.
Both federal prosecutors and Benson expressed concern that allowing a necessity defense before a jury would merely transform the courtroom into a forum for DeChristopher's environmental views.
"I'm reluctant to open my courtroom to a lengthy hearing on global warming and environmental concerns when this is a case based on simple criminal actions," Benson said in September.
Prosecutors echoed this sentiment in court documents filed last month, asking the court to bar the necessity defense.
"It becomes clear that the defendant's hopes are to have a prominent venue for his global-warming show — a platform from which he could educate the masses," wrote prosecutor John Huber.
The opinion issued Monday rejects the necessity defense in DeChristopher's case primarily on the basis that this case does not meet all of the elements required in claiming such a defense.
The judge's ruling outlined all four of these elements, which include showing that DeChristopher was "faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser evil," that "he acted to prevent imminent harm," that "he reasonably anticipated a direct causal relationship between his conduct and the harm to be averted," and, finally, that there were "no legal alternatives to violating the law."
Each of these requirements are then explained and proved inapplicable in DeChristopher's case as it states, among other reasons, that there were legal alternatives to his actions and there was no "imminent harm" in the land-lease situation.
Yengich said that he was "not happy" with the judge's ruling but ultimately respects it and will "follow the directive of the court." Yengich said he will need more time to "determine what it means for representing any issues related to my client's reasons for his actions." He said the next move will be to take the case to trial as that is what DeChristopher has indicated he wants to do.
U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said in a statement that his office is also looking forward to a trial in the case.
"We are pleased with Judge Benson's ruling today barring Mr. DeChristopher from proceeding with his necessity defense," Tolman said. "The law on this issue is overwhelming. We agree with Judge Benson's analysis that Mr. DeChristopher failed to establish any of the required elements of his proposed defense. We now look forward to pressing on to trial and reaching a final resolution in this case."
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