Charges dropped against activists protesting Louisiana pipeline

By: - July 13, 2021 7:14 pm

Sheriff’s deputies arrest Cherri Foytlin (L) and another water protector opposing Louisiana’s Bayou Bridge Pipeline near Bayou Chene on Sept. 4, 2018. Although invited onto the property by a landowner, the two were charged with felony trespassing under the state’s new “critical infrastructure” bill. (Photo by Karen Savage)

Environmental groups celebrated Tuesday as they announced that District Attorney Bofill “Bo” Duhé, chief prosecutor in St. Martin, Iberia and St. Mary Parishes, rejected all charges against 17 people who were charged with crimes in 2018 for violating a law making it a felony to be at or near pipelines or construction sites without permission.

The  Louisiana Legislature amended the state’s critical infrastructure law in 2018 to include pipelines as critical infrastructure. That meant environmentalists protesting at pipeline sites could be sentenced  up to five years in prison. 

The week after the new law went into effect, three Bayou Bridge Pipeline protesters were arrested and charged while kayaking near the site. Cindy Spoon, Sophia Cook-Phillips and Eric Moll. Over the next two months, 14 others were charged with similar felonies. 

Some of those who were arrested challenged the constitutionality of the law, saying that the law was vague, violated their due process and the First Amendment. Louisiana has more than 125,000 miles of pipelines, most of which are underground and not visible. Additionally, some of the arrests were made on property that the pipeline company was trespassing on, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which says it works with “communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications.” Other arrests were made by law enforcement officers moonlighting for a private security company hired by Bayou Bridge Pipeline, the CCR said. 

Bill Quigley, a professor at Loyola New Orleans College of Law has been representing the protesters pro bono for the last three years, and he said Tuesday said the cases against them were bogus. 

“These folks never should’ve been arrested to begin with, and the charges should’ve been dismissed right out of hand, but it’s good that it’s done,” Quigley said. “This is a courageous bunch. It’s hard for anybody to protest at all, it’s extra hard when you’re worried you’re going to get arrested and it’s even harder when you might be facing a felony charge.”

Quigley added that the first three kayakers had permission from Atchafalaya Basin property owners for their on-site protest. 

Duhé confirmed with KATC that he dropped the charges for those accused of trespassing, saying that trespassing could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

“We were waiting on some of the cases that were on-going in the civil arena, to see where they ended up,” Duhé said.”That weighed into the evidence in the criminal prosecution. Based upon those rulings, at the end of the day, we felt that the evidence was insufficient to support a criminal charge.”

Quigley remains involved with the ongoing White Hat v. Landry case, which challenges the constitutionality of the amended statute. 

Spoon, one of the first three arrested, said the pipeline, built by Energy Transfer Partners, is still a force to be reckoned with. 

“Companies like Energy Transfer Partners and the politicians that do their bidding are trying to deter us from defending our communities from the devastating impacts of new fossil fuel infrastructure,” Spoon said. “They have tried to criminalize us and our actions since the Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. In our cases specifically, Bayou Bridge employees and St. Martin Parish police officers acted unlawfully. They were willing to go as far as to break the law themselves to illegally arrest us. The refusal to prosecute us just proves what we already knew: these critical infrastructure laws are unconstitutional. We have the right to resist and we will not be deterred.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

Rachel Mipro is a contributing reporter to the Illuminator. She has previous experience at WBRZ and The Reveille and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. At LSU, she worked as an opinion editor for The Reveille and as a nonfiction editor for the university’s creative writing journal. In her free time, she enjoys baking, Netflix and hiking.