Obama’s DOJ Demands More Prison Time for Ranchers; Protesters Seize Wildlife Refuge Headquarters

By Rachel Alexander Published on January 3, 2016

Make a mistake on federal land, even when you think you have permission, and you may find yourself going to prison for terrorism.* That’s the experience of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who own a family ranch in southern Oregon and are headed to prison Monday. This weekend some of his ranching associates had had enough.

A peaceful street protest in support of the Hammonds was quickly followed by something more dramatic. “After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said. “A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution.”

Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, said that he, two of his brothers and scores of other protesters were occupying the headquarters. The Oregonian reports:

In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them, they said.

“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said.

The Oregonian story also includes an Ammon Bundy Facebook video asking others to come help him. There he says that “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County.” Beneath the video, the AP reports, is this statement: “ALL PATRIOTS IT’S TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED.”

Unjustly Convicted?

So, have Dwight and Steven Hammond been unjustly convicted? In 2001 and then again in 2006, the two purposely set two controlled range fires on land they were leasing from the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in rural, southern Oregon. The 2001 fire was set to eliminate invasive species and, on their account, accidentally burned 139 acres of the land. They explained the 2006 fire was set to protect their land from fires raging on adjacent federal land, and accidentally burned only one acre of BLM land. No one was hurt in either fire.

Steven Hammond said he called and received permission from the BLM to set the first fire.** The BLM claims there was no agreement.

Curiously, the DOJ did not press charges until 2011, five years after the second fire and ten years after the first one. Even more curiously, the DOJ didn’t charge them for misuse of public lands. The indictment accused them of violating the Anti-Terrorism Act. The relevant part of that law was intended to apply to people who intentionally start forest fires as acts of terrorism, not ranchers using standard ranching techniques to try to control invasive species and lower the risk of forest fires.

The indictment stated in part that the Hammonds “conspired and agreed to commit” the following offense: “by means of fire(s), intentionally and maliciously damage and destroy, or attempt to damage and destroy, vehicles and real or personal property, in whole or in part, owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States or any department or agency thereof.” The charges carried a minimum five-year prison sentence. The BLM, represented by DOJ attorneys, could have brought charges other than federal arson against the ranchers that would not have required a mandatory minimum.

A straightforward reading of their motives for the controlled fire strongly suggests that the Hammonds did not “intentionally and maliciously” try to destroy government property. The judge who sentenced the Hammonds, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, realized the law did not fit the crime, and so sentenced them to a lighter term in prison of three months for the father and one year for the son.

Judge Hogan explained that sentencing them to the mandatory minimum “would shock the conscience.” He said it would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, because five years behind bars is “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.” In fact, both “the judge and jury found the fire had arguably increased the value of the land for grazing.”

But the DOJ prosecutors would not let it go, and appealed Hogan’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — a waste of taxpayer dollars, considering the Hammonds had already served time in prison for a crime that did not fit the charges.

Three judges on the Ninth Circuit would not stand up to the DOJ prosecutors, and remanded the case back to another judge (Judge Hogan had retired) to comply with doling out the mandatory minimum. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken duly followed orders, comparing the fires to “eco-terrorism” by environmental activists.

Meanwhile, the BLM has refused to grant the Hammond family a permit for cattle grazing over the past two years, causing them hardship. It is instead charging them with $400,000 in damages.

“This Extreme Abuse of Power”

The Oregon Farm Bureau protested “this extreme abuse of power” (Dwight Hammond had been a member of its board). The well-respected organization started a petition to send to the DOJ that has over 8,000 signatures at savethehammonds.com. “We understand Dwight and Steve broke the law,” Oregon Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Dave Dillon told Western Livestock Journal in an interview. “But the federal government appears to be acting out of vindictiveness here, not justice.” The Bureau hopes President Obama will pardon the Hammonds. It recently announced that it will be submitting FOIA requests to the BLM and pursuing justice further.

After reading the indictment, I think it is very possible that the BLM has a vendetta against the Hammonds because they refused to allow BLM firefighters access to their land when they were putting out the accidental fire on public lands. Were the Hammonds wrong to prohibit the government access to cross their land for that purpose? Maybe. They did not respond to emails forwarded to them and phone numbers listed online were disconnected.

Perhaps the BLM’s record of abuses toward rural land owners made the Hammonds legitimately afraid to allow the BLM access, knowing how much further that could allow the abuse to continue. Considering an accidental — and likely legitimately set (they claim to have had the BLM’s permission) — fire had progressed from their leased property onto other BLM property, how far could the situation be twisted against them, knowing the BLM’s record of mistreatment of other ranchers?

The public is overwhelmingly on the ranchers’ side. The East Oregonian ran an editorial in October denouncing the lengthy prison sentence, noting that “Other federal laws that carry five-year minimum sentences address treason, child pornography, using a gun while committing a violent crime or importing drugs. Burning 140 acres does not compare with any of those crimes.”

The Hammonds have already served one year, three months and a day between the two of them. They are required to turn themselves into the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on January 4, 2016. At some point, when will the grown-ups step in and stop this gross abuse of the legal system?

 

*This has been corrected to reflect that the Hammonds said they had received permission to light one or both of the fires. We were unable to corroborate this.
**The Stream has been unable to corroborate whether the Hammonds said they received permission to light the second fire, so this has been corrected to state they only claim to have asked for permission to light the first fire, 
which the government claims did not take place until two hours after the fire had been set.

For other articles related to prosecutorial abuses, see:

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