DENVER — The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the felony convictions of activist Tim DeChristopher, who is in a California prison for deliberately bidding on federal oil and gas leases to protect public lands from drilling.
A panel of three judges said U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson was correct to prohibit DeChristopher from raising the "necessity defense" at his trial in July 2011 because the defense only applies if the individual lacks no legal alternative.
In DeChristopher's case, the court points out — as did Benson — that the environmentalist could have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management for offering the parcels up for lease.
DeChristopher also argued that Benson abused his judicial discretion when he limited evidence regarding the alleged illegality of the BLM auction. The court disagreed.
"Here, the district court correctly excluded the evidence as irrelevant," the decision said. "Whether the BLM complied with all applicable environmental regulations in conducting the auction has nothing to do with whether (DeChristopher) organized a scheme, arrangement or plan to circumvent or defeat the provisions of the Onshore Leasing Reform Act relating to oil and gas auctions."
DeChristopher became the national poster boy for environmental activism when he joined a BLM auction in downtown Salt Lake City in December 2008 after registering as a bidder. He won 14 parcels of land for $1.8 million but had no intention of paying for them.
The auction had been targeted by protesters who felt the land on the auction block was too pristine or too close to national parks to be offered up for oil and gas drilling. DeChristopher has said he felt he had to go beyond standing on a sidewalk with a poster.
He was arrested and later charged with two third-degree felonies for violation of federal provisions related to onshore oil and gas development and misrepresenting himself as a bidder.
During his trial, a throng of followers held daily protests. DeChristopher often addressed the crowd, espousing his determination to keep fighting against federal policies that promote environmental destruction — even if it meant breaking the law.
In another argument he brought up on appeal, DeChristopher said Benson was retaliatory in his sentencing because of his exercise of his First Amendment rights. The court said DeChristopher was not punished for his speech when he was sentenced to a prison term of two years.
Benson, the court said, relied on DeChristopher's statements to determine what sentence would deter future violations of the law and promote respect for the law.
"(DeChristopher's) statements that he would 'continue to fight' and his view that it was 'fine to break the law' were highly relevant to these sentencing factors," the appellate court said.
One of the justices dissented on a single argument DeChristopher raised in his appeal, agreeing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him the charge of arranging, scheming or planning to defeat the provisions of the Onshore Leasing Reform Act.