Local District Attorney Rejects All Criminal Charges for Alleged Violations of ALEC-inspired Anti-Protest Amendments to Critical Infrastructure Law
St. Martinville, Louisiana – Sixteen pipeline protesters and a journalist who had been arrested and charged with felonies in 2018 celebrated a major victory for the First Amendment after a local district attorney in Louisiana rejected all charges and vowed not to prosecute them under Louisiana’s controversial amendments to its critical infrastructure law.
In 2018, in the midst of fierce opposition to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and at the urging of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the Louisiana legislature added pipelines to the definition of critical infrastructure to significantly heighten the penalties for people protesting pipeline projects. The amendments made it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, with or without hard labor, for being on or near pipelines or construction sites allegedly without permission. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline, built by Energy Transfer Partners, is the tail end of the same network of pipelines that includes the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Louisiana has over 125,000 miles of pipelines, most of which are underground and not visible. Three of the people arrested and charged under the law have brought a case challenging its constitutionality. In White Hat v. Landry, attorneys for the protesters and the journalist have argued that the law is unconstitutional because it is so vague that it violates due process, as well as the First Amendment. A federal judge in Louisiana recently denied motions by the local sheriff and district attorney seeking to have the case dismissed. Some of the arrests were made on property where it was later found that the pipeline company was itself trespassing. In an expropriation case brought by the pipeline company, three landowners countersued for trespass and a state appellate court agreed that the company had committed a trespass and violated their rights to due process, but it was the protesters who were charged with felonies for allegedly remaining on the same property without permission.
This critical infrastructure law is part of a national effort to crack down on environmental activists across the U.S. The first of these laws was passed in Oklahoma in 2017, creating severe penalties for interfering with pipelines and other “critical infrastructure” and “conspiring” to commit such interference. The bill’s sponsor explicitly noted that the law was introduced in response to pipeline protests. In January 2018, shortly after the Oklahoma legislation was enacted, the corporate-funded, politically conservative group of state lawmakers and corporate representatives known as ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, adopted model legislation based on the Oklahoma critical infrastructure law, and has pushed for adoption of the laws in many states. Legislation aimed at pipeline protesters has been introduced more than 23 times in 18 states since 2017, and enacted in 15.
“Today, we are counting Coup on a trifecta of colonizers. Energy Transfer Partners, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the politicians along with their police forces who viewed our powerful grassroots resistance to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline as a viable threat to their capitalist greed and waged an unjust war to silence us,” said Anne White Hat, one of the people arrested and charged under the law. “Louisiana’s ‘critical infrastructure’ law is an attempt to take away our personal freedom along with our constitutional right to protest. I stand proud of our work and am grateful for the countless allies who bravely stepped forward to support the first direct actions to stop oil and gas in the swamps of south Louisiana. Climate change will soon overcome our ability to survive unless we take action to mitigate the root cause, direct or otherwise. We will not stop our work to protect our water for future generations, and we will continue to stand for the rights of Mother Earth, who has no voice and who ultimately has the last say.”
Just days after the amendments to the “critical infrastructure” law went into effect in Louisiana on August 1, 2018, three people protesting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline on navigable waters were pulled from their kayaks by law enforcement officers moonlighting for a private security company hired by Bayou Bridge Pipeline, arrested, and charged under the law. More arrests followed over the next two months. In total, 17 people, including a journalist covering the opposition to the pipeline project, were arrested and charged under the law.
“Companies like Energy Transfer Partners and the politicians that do their bidding are trying to deter us from defending our communities from the devastating impacts of new fossil fuel infrastructure,” said Cindy Spoon, one of the protesters pulled from her kayak in a waterway and arrested and charged with trespassing on critical infrastructure. “They have tried to criminalize us and our actions since the Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. In our cases specifically, Bayou Bridge employees and St. Martin Parish police officers acted unlawfully. They were willing to go as far as to break the law themselves to illegally arrest us. The refusal to prosecute us just proves what we already knew: these critical infrastructure laws are unconstitutional. We have the right to resist and we will not be deterred.”
“Why is the state of Louisiana working with the extractive industry to redefine criminality in efforts to lock up community members?” asked Ramon Mejia, also arrested and charged under the law. “We all require a healthy environment that provides clean air, water, land, and well-functioning ecosystems, to thrive. Rather than halt what was illegal construction, law enforcement used their authority to arrest us and hold us in limbo for nearly three years. For many of us, who come from historically underrepresented, disproportionately impacted, communities, exercising our right to dissent is a catalyst for the advancement of our collective rights.”
“The First Amendment guarantees water protectors the right to protest and protects my right as a journalist to report on those protests without fear of retribution,” said Karen Savage, an independent journalist arrested while covering the events. “The DA’s refusal to prosecute is further proof that this law is unconstitutional and that the arrests by the St Martin Parish Sheriff’s deputies should never have happened.”
“When courageous people act to protect our water and land they should be honored, not prosecuted,” said Bill Quigley, one of the attorneys representing those charged. “Justice was served.”
“After nearly three years with serious charges hanging over these protesters and a journalist who risked a lot to raise awareness about this controversial project, the district attorney finally did the right thing in rejecting all of them,” said Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, also representing those charged. “It’s a clear confirmation that something is seriously wrong with this law. Not only did it target people expressing their opposition to this pipeline project, the law put anyone in Louisiana at risk of running afoul of its vague and sweeping terms, regardless of their political views or feelings about pipelines.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.