Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Walden bill would soften law used in Hammond case

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is sponsoring a bill that would soften the federal statute used to convict the Harney County ranchers whose imprisonment was central to last year’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff. The bill would exempt from prosecution people who violate the law under circumstances similar to the Hammonds’. In 2012, Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond were convicted of setting fires on their ranch in 2001 and 2006 that spread to federal land. The Hammonds maintain the earlier fire was set to control invasive plants, while prosecutors maintained it was to cover up illegal hunting. Walden’s bill defines the circumstances under which the law would not apply, carving out exemptions that would likely have spared the Hammonds had they been in place at the time. Provided a fire was set on an individual’s private land for the purpose of protecting that property or as part of farming-, ranching- or timber-related vegetation management — and does not pose a serious threat of injury or damage to any individual or federal property — that individual would not be prosecuted...more

As a refresher on the Hammond's case, here is what I wrote in my November 2015 column:

Ranchers as Terrorists

After a two-week trial in July of 2012, Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, were found guilty of setting fires that caused damage to federal property.  One fire burned 139 acres of federal land, the other only 1 acre.  The Hammonds claimed the fires were for range management purposes, the federal prosecutors said they were set for more nefarious reasons.  Now-retired U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan sentenced Steven Hammond to one year and a day in prison for setting intentional fires in 2001 and 2006, and ordered Dwight Hammond to spend three months behind bars for his involvement in the 2001 blaze.

That should have been the end of the story.  But it wasn’t.

The feds appealed claiming the ranchers should have received mandatory sentences of five years.  They had charged the ranchers with violation of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.  

That’s right, the feds were using a law aimed at terrorists to prosecute the ranchers and that law required the mandatory sentences. Judge Hogan had ruled that 5-year sentences would “shock the conscience”, would be grossly disproportionate to the offenses committed and violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the feds, however, and returned the case for sentencing. On October 7 of this year, both Hammonds received the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for deliberately setting fires that spread from their property onto federal land.  For comparison, other federal laws that carry five-year minimum sentences are for treason, child pornography, using a gun while committing a violent crime or importing drugs.

That should have been the end of this sad story.  But it wasn’t.

 Capital Press posted an online article about the five year sentences and a person who identified himself as Greg Allum posted three comments on the article, calling the ranchers “clowns” who endangered firefighters and other people in the area while burning valuable rangeland.  The real Greg Allum, a retired BLM heavy equipment operator, called Capital Press and complained he hadn’t posted those comments.  “They’re not terrorists. There’s this hatred in the BLM for them, and I don’t get it,” Allum said.

The publication undertook a search of the Internet Protocol address associated with the comments and discovered the computer was owned by one of BLM’s offices in Denver, Colo.

Treat ranchers as terrorists and then use a government computer to publicly disparage them.  One is an injustice and the other is an abuse of federal equipment to ridicule private citizens.

Oregon Farm Bureau President Barry Bushue says this “is an example of gross government overreach, and the public should be outraged.  Today’s verdict is also hypocritical given BLM’s own harm to public and private grazing lands, which goes without consequence.”  Bushue continued, “This prosecution will have a chilling effect across the West among ranchers, foresters, and others who rely on federal allotments and permits.”
Collaboration anyone?

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