Friday, May 27, 2005
Ninth Circuit Affirms Conviction of ‘Tree Sitters’ for Interfering With Logging in National Forest
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A federal statute prohibiting interference with timber harvesting is not unconstitutionally vague as applied to a pair of environmental activists who used ropes to prevent a helicopter from landing at a site to clear trees, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel affirmed the convictions of Joel Andrew Wyatt and Rebecca Kay Smith, of violating 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1864(a). The statute makes it a crime to use a “hazardous or injurious device” on federal land with the intent to obstruct a timber harvest.
Wyatt and Smith, who used the names Lupine and Fireweed, spent several weeks on elevated platforms in two trees as part of an anti-logging protest in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana in the summer of 2002. Wyatt came down several days after officials cut off the pair’s supply of food and water, but Smith continued her protest for another week after that and was forcibly removed.
During the protest, the defendants allegedly hung four yellow polypropolene ropes with the intent to interfere with helicopters operating at the site, and thus prevent logging activity there. Judge Carlos Bea, writing for the Ninth Circuit, explained in a footnote that a logging helicopter does not actually land at the designated site, but attaches a 200-foot line to logs which are then lowered until grasped by loggers working on the ground.
The ropes used by the defendants, a forester testified, could entangle with the line. It could also entangle with the helicopter and cause a crash.
The defendants contended that the statute denied them due process because it did not specify what kinds of devices are hazardous or injurious.
But Bea said the statutory definition of a hazardous or injurious device as”a device, which when assembled or placed, is capable of causing bodily injury, or damage to property, by the action of any person making contact with such device subsequent to the assembly or placement,” including “sharpened stakes, lines or wires, lines or wires with hooks attached” was sufficient.
“[W]e hold that 18 U.S.C. § 1864(a) provides fair warning to a person of common intelligence that it is a crime to hang ropes over a helicopter landing site with the intent to obstruct or harass the harvesting of timber,” the judge wrote.
Nor, Bea went on to say, does the rule of lenity, which requires that the defendant be given the benefit of the most favorable reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute, apply under the circumstances. “[T]he statute is not ambiguous as applied because it is clear how the yellow ropes could be hazardous or injurious to a helicopter should a helicopter come into contact with the ropes,” the judge explained.
The case is United States v. Wyatt, 04-30316.
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