DeChristopher?s verdict will set precedent for legal civil disobedience

By By Michael McFall and By Michael McFall

By Michael McFall

Tim DeChristopher isn’t going to trial just for himself8212;the future of legal civil disobedience might rest on his shoulders.

Whether the senior in economics receives the full sentence of 10 years in prison for dishonestly bidding on government land or walks away a free man, it could be bad news for the federal government. If he’s allowed to argue that a crime is permissible if it’s to prevent climate change, little DeChristophers could pop up like daisies. If he isn’t, the government might have to deal with a flood of impassioned public backlash.

In April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office pressed criminal charges against DeChristopher for winning 14 land leases at a Bureau of Land Management auction without intent to pay for them, a violation of federal law. DeChristopher has admitted in the public forum that what he did was wrong, but his defense is that he did it for a greater good8212;protecting the land from oil and gas companies, thus protecting the planet from further climate change8212;reasons he said he believes shouldn’t be prosecuted. Committing a crime to prevent a greater one is colloquially known as the lesser-of-two-evils defense, and the prosecution filed a motion to ban him from using it.

Both sides will argue its inclusion during a hearing Friday morning.

Brett Tolman, one of the prosecutors, wrote a motion addressed to the case’s judge, asking him to ban the lesser-of-two-evils defense. DeChristopher’s fans trumpet him as a modern-day folk hero and Tolman said many of them say he single-handedly saved Southeastern Utah from imminent destruction.

The U.S. District Attorney’s Office and the BLM have expressed concern that if DeChristopher’s legal argument actually works, it would encourage a wave of like-minded environmental activists to follow in his footsteps, Shea said.

Shea predicts a public outcry if the judge allows the prosecution to ban it.

“If we don’t succeed on Friday, there will be more people asking the government, “Why are you punishing a 27-year-old kid?’ ” Shea said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office argues that DeChristopher is still a criminal and should be tried for his actions, not his intent. That is why the prosecution is eager to keep it away from the ears of the jury. The prosecutors told the judge that his intent might unfairly win the jury over to his side, despite the criminality of his actions.

If Benson permits the lesser-of-two-evils defense, it could be “the first snowflake in an avalanche of civil disobedience,” Shea said. He said he thinks it’s just what this country needs to push America towards breaking its addiction to oil and doing more to ward off the impending threat of climate change.

“The arteries of change are clogged,” Shea said. “Tim took the paddles to its chest and sparked them.”
But as for DeChristopher, Shea said he’s had a lot on his mind as his federal trial creeps in closer every day.

“He was in my office the other day,” Shea said. “He’s taking classes and he’s trying to graduate, but his mind is on a much larger and long-term concern8212;climate change.”

DeChristopher has been insistent that Shea and Ron Yengich, the co-defense attorney, use the lesser-of-two-evils defense in court. But Shea assured that if the court shoots down the defense Friday morning, he and Yengich have a few more cards up their sleeve.
DeChristopher could not be reached for comment.

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