Two days before a 2008 oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City, Utah, environmental groups filed suit in federal court seeking to prevent leases from issuing on the 77 parcels. They reached an agreement with federal lawyers allowing the auction to go forward, with the understanding that a federal judge could issue a restraining order as to the parcels sold. A judge ultimately did issue such an order, and the Obama administration later rescinded the leases, which would have allowed drilling near Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument.
On the day of the auction, however (before the restraining order and withdrawal of the leases), a University of Utah student named Tim DeChristopher signed a bidder registration form and won almost $1.8 million in bids – 14 parcels totaling roughly 22,600 acres. He couldn’t pay the required downpayment, as he was there to protect public lands from drilling, so a grand jury issued a two-count indictment against him. The district court granted the government’s motion to prevent him from presenting a necessity defense, a jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Today the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, stating that the district court did not violate the Constitution by taking DeChristopher’s beliefs and statements into account when imposing the sentence:
The context makes clear that the court, far from punishing Defendant for the content of his public statements, simply relied on those statements to determine the sentence necessary to deter Defendant from future violations and to promote respect for the law. Defendant’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. So the district court did not violate the First Amendment by considering Defendant’s public statements when imposing sentence.
Had the district court imposed a shorter sentence on DeChristopher because of his beliefs, that would have been understandable. Yet U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said it was “a continuing trail of statements by Mr. DeChristopher about his advocacy, as he calls it civil disobedience, and that he will continue to fight, and I am prepared to go to prison, then others are going to have to be prepared to go with me [sic], that causes me to feel under the sentencing laws before me that a term of imprisonment is required.”
Somehow the Tenth Circuit concluded this was “far from punishing [DeChristopher] for the content of his public statements.” Quite the opposite.