MN Appeals Court Allows ‘Necessity Defense’ In Trespass Trial

Published May 24, 2018

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled climate change activists can claim their actions to trespass and vandalize an oil pipeline were justified to fight climate change.

In the case, four environmental activists — one from New York and three from Washington — admit they used bolt cutters to break into Enbridge Energy facility in Clearwater County Minnesota in 2016 and turned the emergency shut-off valves on two pipelines in an attempt prevent the flow of Canadian tar sands crude oil across five states.

The case originally included 6 defendants. Two of the protesters have already been convicted of felonies, but Judge Robert Tiffany in Clearwater County  ruled in October 2017 the four remaining protestors could use a “necessity defense,” in this case arguing their actions were necessary “prevent imminent climate catastrophe.”

Tiffany’s was the first written opinion to allow environmental activist to claim a necessity defense in a climate case

State Appeal

County prosecutors challenged Tiffany’s decision and the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in February. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the prosecutor’s argument the necessity defense was not justified based on the harms involved neither being certain nor immanent.

Prosecutors argued this is a case about trespass and property damage not climate change.

By a two to one majority opinion, the state appeals court dismissed the challenge on Monday, April 23, allowing the defendants to argue before a jury their actions were justified as necessary to fight climate change since the legislature has failed to enact policies to address it.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Francis Connolly wrote the necessity defense doesn’t apply “because there is no direct, causal connection between respondents’ criminal trespass and the prevention of global warming.

“This case is about whether respondents have committed the crimes of damage to property and trespass,” wrote Connolly. “It is not about global warming.”

County prosecutors have not decided at this time whether they will appeal the Court of Appeals ruling or proceed to trial.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.