How much influence should a federal judge have over a criminal defendant’s defense strategy?
A Utah man is asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn his conviction for disrupting an oil and gas auction, arguing that his trial judge erred in shutting down his civil disobedience defense.
Tim DeChristopher was sentenced in July to two years in prison and ordered to pay $10,000 in fines after disrupting an oil and gas auction for land near Utah's national parks. DeChristopher, who registered as Bidder Number 70 at a federal drilling rights auction in 2008, ultimately won 14 oil and gas leases for $1.8 million. The only problem was that he didn't have $1.8 million, and he never intended to pay for the leases.
At trial, DeChristopher's legal team wanted to argue that he registered as Bidder Number 70 to right a wrong and was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: bidding with false intentions or standing by while an environmental wrong occurred. Judge Dee Benson, however, strictly limited defense testimony on federal energy policies and climate change to avoid turning the courtroom into a debate over environmental policy.
Thursday, DeChristopher's attorney, Ron Yengich, claimed that DeChristopher had no choice but to disrupt the auction because it was an illegal proceeding. Yengich told the three-judge panel, "Mr. DeChristopher's actions effectively stopped the lease process and gave the new administration the opportunity to review it and then move forward," The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
The Tenth Circuit panel challenged the idea that DeChristopher had to break the law to stop the auction, suggesting that he could have filed a lawsuit to enjoin the auction or protested the auction instead.
Yengich also claimed that DeChristopher did not have the requisite intent to break the law when he registered as Bidder Number 70. The government denied that assertion, saying that DeChristopher signed a form explaining the auction rules, and acknowledging liability for any failure to pay, before bidding, reports The Associated Press.
Even if Tim DeChristopher considers himself The Prince of environmental activism, we doubt the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals will buy his Machiavellian appellate theory.