Groups Challenge New Felony Protest Law

Above photo: Pipeline protesters lock down to a crane. By Karen Savage. From the L’Eau Est La Vie Camp Facebook Page.

Louisiana – Environmentalists and activists arrested for protesting around the Bayou Bridge pipeline have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law passed last year that allows law enforcement to charge protesters as felons.

The new law, which changed the definition of “critical infrastructure,” is intended to protect sensitive areas such as power plants, petrochemical facilities and water treatment sites. Pipelines and pipeline construction sites were added to the critical infrastructure list, making it a felony to trespass at the pipeline as of last August.

Supporters have said it’s important to provide law enforcement with clear guidelines to protect pipelines from damage. Detractors said the law infringes on first amendment rights of free speech.

During construction of the now-operational Bayou Bridge pipeline, 15 people were arrested in St. Martin Parish under the new law, said attorney Bill Quigley. Prosecutors have not yet indicated whether they will pursue felony cases, dismiss the charges or take some other action, Quigley said.

Some of the people arrested, joined by landowners and environmental organizations, are suing the state Attorney General’s Office to strike the new law as unconstitutional.

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office said in a statement that it will “vigorously defend the law as our State has an obvious and compelling reason to protect vital infrastructure from criminal trespass, damage, or possible attack.” It said environmental groups are free to protest but not in a manner that obstructs and threatens infrastructure.

Environmentalists see the law differently.

“This law was designed, really, to intimidate us,” Anne White Hat said at a news conference Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge.

White Hat said she’s facing up to 10 years in prison after being arrested near a Bayou Bridge construction site.

She called the new law unjust and dangerous and warned sportsmen that they could be swept up as well if they get too close to one of the many pipelines running through hunting and fishing spots.

Several speakers at the news conference pointed out that a judge has ruled that construction crews were the ones trespassing in St. Martin because they were performing work on property without going through the official eminent domain process, though the company was only ordered to pay $450 in damages and the work was allowed to proceed.

The sheriff and district attorney in St. Martin are also named as defendants in the suit in an effort to drop the outstanding criminal cases involving the 15 people who have already been arrested under the felony law.

Sheriff’s Maj. Ginny Higgins pointed out that deputies just enforce the laws — they don’t write them — but declined to comment on the suit Wednesday because her office had not yet been served the paperwork. The District Attorney’s Office did not return calls seeking comment.

Industry lobbyists weighed in, though.

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association helped draft the legislation passed last year. The law is straightforward and crafted so as not to punish people who lawfully assemble, fish, hunt or exercise their property rights near pipelines and construction sites, association President Tyler Gray wrote in a statement.

“This important law protects Louisiana and its citizens from individuals who attempt to unlawfully interrupt construction of pipeline projects or damage existing facilities, which not only puts the trespassers at risk, but also risks the lives of first responders, employees, and the surrounding communities and environment,” Gray wrote.

He added, “Louisiana’s natural gas and oil industry plays a critical role in fueling America with reliable and affordable energy and damage to our critical infrastructure risks interrupting critical services across the United States.”

The suit has been assigned to Louisiana Middle District Judge John deGravelles. Quigley said that as of Wednesday, no future court dates had been set.