FORT BENTON – Climate-change activist Leonard Higgins received a deferred sentence Tuesday for his part in an October 2016 effort to bring attention to climate change by shutting down pipelines carrying Canadian tar-sands through four U.S. states.
Before the sentencing Tuesday mornging, Higgins had waited calmly with his defense attorneys, Lauren Regan and Herman Watson, knowing he potentially faced 10 years in prison for criminal mischief and felony criminal trespass. Higgins had cut three chains to enter a pipeline enclosure and close a valve to isolate a section of Enbridge pipeline near Fort Benton.
A Choteau County jury found him guilty on both counts on Nov. 22 after a two-day trail.
On Tuesday, Choteau County District Judge Daniel Boucher ignored County prosecutor Steve Gannon’s request for a 10-year sentence for the felony count with all but 60 days suspended, which Higgins would serve in jail.
Boucher appeared to give defense attorney Lauren Regan’s arguments more weight. Regan pointed out that Montana law says any punishment the judge imposed should resemble sentences given for similar offenses. She said Ken Ward, the activist who shut a similar valve in Washington as part of the same action, had received a sentence of 240 hours of community service so incarceration was inappropriate.
With the effects of climate change continue to worsen, Regan also asked the judge to consider the significance of the case. She likened it to other ground-breaking trials that started in small courtrooms, such as the Scopes trial of Tennessee that struck down a ban on the teaching of evolution or Rowe v. Wade, which gave women reproductive rights.
“We know it’s not every day that a district court is asked to engage in a political trial like this, let alone be asked to permit evidence showing a defendant’s actions are justified in order to hinder catastrophic climate change. But it is the fair adjudication of cases like this that historically advance our society,” Regan said. “Changing beliefs are often advanced through the court system.”
Ultimately, Boucher gave Higgins a three-year deferred sentence, which means that the verdict will be wiped from Higgins’ record after three years as long as he doesn’t commit another crime. He also required Higgins to pay $3,700 in restitution for damages caused to Enbridge, a Canadian oil company. Choteau County prosecutor Steve Gannon had asked for $25,000 in restitution to reimburse Enbridge for new chains, a broken valve cover and labor to assess other valve sites.
Boucher said three considerations played into his decision: Higgins’ age – 65; the fact Higgins didn’t benefit from his actions; and Higgins’ reasons for taking those actions.
While Higgins’ hadn’t been allowed to explain his reasons during the trial – Boucher had not allowed a “necessity” defense – Higgins was given a chance to explain his motivation on Tuesday. His voice occasionally cracking from emotion, Higgins acknowledged that he broke the law but said he did so out of concern for his grandchildren, who face a warming climate due to increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Higher global temperatures mean more drought, extreme storms, melting icecaps, lower snowpack and acidified oceans.
“The facts of climate science, the tragic impacts already underway due to climate change and the failure of government to respond with a timely and adequate response drove me to cross the line from being a state employee working for the people and the government to consider nonviolent civil disobedience,” Higgins said. “Knowledgeable experts say we are out of time. But there’s too much that’s precious in this life to give up without a fight. And the things that are precious in my life are the lives of my children, grandchildren, family and other loved ones.”
Fourteen people associated with Missoula-based 350 Montana traveled from Missoula to join other valve-turners and their significant others at the Choteau County Courthouse in support of Higgins. Higgins thanked them all after the sentencing hearing.
“I’m relieved and actually a bit bewildered. I came expecting to go to jail,” Higgins said. “To get a sentence where it will eventually be removed from my record is a bit astounding.”
Higgins' bewilderment stems from the fact that Michael Foster, the activist who shut down a North Dakota pipeline, was sentenced in February to three years in the state prison with two deferred. After one month, Foster was recently transferred to a minimum-security facility. Higgins says he intends to appeal within 30 days partly because the judge had not allowed the jury to hear the necessity defense. The judge for the trial for two valve-turners in Minnesota has agreed to hear the necessity defense but the prosecution has appealed.