First Round of #NoDAPL Water Protectors Head to Court

By Yessenia Funes Dec 19, 2016

Since confrontations between opponents to the Dakota Access Pipeline and law enforcement began on August 12, police have arrested more than 550 water protectors. Today (December 19), 10 of them face the first of multiple jury trials at the Morton County District Court. Others are due in court over the next two weeks, continuing into into the spring.

The Water Protector Legal Collective, a legal support team for the #NoDAPL movement and an initiative by the National Lawyers Guild, will be representing the defendants. Angela Bivens of the collective clarified that today’s 10 defendants weren’t arrested on the same date or under the same circumstances, but would be tried together. “In my mind, as a defense attorney, this is a miscarriage of justice—whatever the outcome is—that due process it not going to be delivered to these water protectors by the way the trials have been set up,” she said in a video where she discusses today’s trial.

The collective writes in its press release:

The Water Protectors scheduled for trial remain firm in their defense of the Standing Rock Sioux tribal sovereignty and the tribe’s desire to prevent the construction of DAPL on sacred land set aside for the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Water Protectors’ actions arose in response to neglect by corporate, federal and state institutions of Standing Rock’s right to self-determination.

However, as the release states, the prosecution is attempting to prevent water protectors from using indigenous sovereignty or treaty land rights in their defense argument. In addition, the county courts aren’t recognizing the pipeline opponents’ actions as protected by the First Amendment, says the legal collective. This trial will set a precedent for how the court—and lawyers—will handle future ones.   

“The Morton County court has engaged in potential violations of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel through a pattern and practice of delayed appointment of defense attorneys for the Water Protectors until the eve of trial,” the press release says.

The state of North Dakota does not have enough public or private attorneys to handle the high number of cases, Bivens says in the video. According to ThinkProgress, 264 people do not have a lawyer, and the 265 who have been assigned a pubic attorney “aren’t receiving adequate counsel.” Bivens also explains that several lawyers they have talked to are connected to the oil industry.

“They don’t want to give water protectors even an adequate defense,” she says. “Some of our water protectors have walked away from those meetings with their court-appointed counsel being traumatized by what the attorney said to them about their actions and about the indefensibility of their actions, which is completely untrue, which is completely political in their agenda.”

This has led the legal collective to petition the North Dakota Supreme Court December 16 so that it allows out-of-state attorneys to temporarily practice law in the state to defend some of the pipeline opponents. The court is accepting comments on the petition until December 30.