Judge drops trespassing charges against Line 3 opponent LaDuke
Judge in Aitkin County found no probable cause on two counts of trespassing.
AITKIN — Trespassing charges filed against activist Winona LaDuke in Aitkin County in connection with the Line 3 replacement project were dismissed.
Leslie M. Metzen, Senior Judge of District Court, dismissed two counts of misdemeanor trespass Tuesday, April 18, for lack of probable cause.
On Dec. 5, 2020, LaDuke and five other individuals were present at an Anishinaabe prayer lodge near the banks of the Mississippi River on Minnesota State Forest Land in Aitkin County.
Also on that day, after the group was in or near the prayer lodge, signs were posted in the nearby area indicating that the area of the prayer lodge was within an exclusion zone where land clearing was to take place to facilitate the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 Oil Pipeline Replacement Project.
Members of the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approached the prayer lodge and informed LaDuke and the other individuals they were within the exclusion zone and needed to leave. Four of the individuals agreed to leave and were escorted off the premises. LaDuke and one other individual remained at the prayer lodge and discussed with DNR Capt. Tom Provost that they were completing a religious ceremony. After negotiation, Provost agreed LaDuke and the other individual could continue their ceremony for 15 minutes before they would have to leave.
At the conclusion of the 15 minutes, LaDuke was escorted off the property and cited for trespassing.
In her motion to have the charges dismissed, LaDuke noted the trespass charges filed by Aitkin County Attorney’s Office violated the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In her ruling, Metzen noted there was no evidence LaDuke refused to leave the area, and there was no evidence there was a cordoned off area or she crossed into a cordoned off area.
“There is no probable cause for either alleged offense. The charges against Defendant are dismissed without consideration of the other arguments raised by Defendant,” Metzen concluded in her ruling.
In addition to LaDuke, Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida testified in the case.
Guida said if a jury of Aitkin County residents in front of an elected Aitkin County judge would have heard the case, they very well could have found probable cause on both trespassing charges.
Overall, Guida said he was pleased with how his officers handled the Line 3 protests. He said his office was sensitive to tribal concerns with the project and law enforcement’s response to them.
The main thing, Guida said, was the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office was able to keep the peace and avoid violence.
“All in all, the biggest point I want to make is whether the courts side with the county attorney or my office or not, the biggest thing is no one was hurt in these cases,” Guida said. “It could have happened but it didn’t. … From start to end, it was an outcome I am very happy with.”
In a news release from the Climate Defense Project, LaDuke’s attorney, Frank Bibeau, defended her right to peacefully practice her religion inside the prayer lodge.
“Judge Metzen’s prudent decision to dismiss these exaggerated charges against Ms. LaDuke once again illustrates that Winona’s rights to exercise her religious and First Amendment freedoms were not in any way criminal trespass,” Bibeau said.
In the same release, Climate Defense Project staff attorney Claire Glenn said, “The charges in this case were ridiculous, and further illustrate the widespread overreach by Minnesota law enforcement — including officers from the DNR and Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office — who were incentivized by massive amounts of money to control, if not silence, public dissent to pipeline construction because of an arrangement between Enbridge and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to establish an escrow fund for policing during the building of Line 3. The judge got it right, but only after more than three years waiting for Ms. LaDuke’s day in court. In the meantime, law enforcement got paid and Enbridge got its pipeline.”
MATT ERICKSON, Editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5857.