June 8, 2022
On Monday, June 6, 2022, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Central’s initial sentencing of Water Protector Jessica Reznicek. Three Trump-appointed judges wrote, “Reznicek argues that the enhancement should not have applied because her actions were directed at a private company, rather than the government. Even if that is right, any error was harmless.”
In June of 2021, Reznicek was sentenced to 8 years (96 months) in federal prison after pleading guilty to acts of property damage she caused the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Over Reznicek’s objection, the district court applied a “terrorism” sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4 that increased her sentencing range from 37–46 months to 210–240 months. The district court then “varied downward” and sentenced her to 96 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release.
Federal district court judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger sentenced Reznicek applying a terrorism sentencing enhancement because she believed Reznicek’s conduct targeted “not only the flow of oil, but the government’s continued responses (or lack thereof)” as well. On appeal, Jessica Reznicek argued that her actions targeted a private company, not the government, and was therefore misapplied. In support of her appeal, the Water Protector Legal Collective and National Lawyers Guild submitted an amicus brief which discusses the rise of labeling activists as “terrorists” and urges the Eighth Circuit Court to vacate the sentence.
Application of the terrorism enhancement
The terrorism enhancement against Jessica Reznicek was applied in response to a 2017 letter in which eighty-four members of Congress wrote to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting that Jessica Reznicek and other protestors who tamper with private property, like pipelines be prosecuted as domestic terrorists. The authors of this letter received a combined $36 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.
The prosecution of Water Protectors and use of lawfare against those that protect the Earth has been specifically backed by oil companies who are only concerned with the bottom line.
"Everybody's afraid of these environmental groups and fear that it might look bad if you fight back with these people. But what they did to us is wrong, and they are going to pay for it," said Kelcy Warren, CEO OF Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Impact on Water Protectors and activists generally
Our joint amicus brief and press release with the National Lawyers Guild addressed some of the mounting concern about the impact of this decision: “Sentencing Reznicek under a federal terrorism enhancement for acts of civil disobedience targeting private property, sets an alarming and dangerous precedent for climate justice movements and endangers Indigenous and front-line defenders most impacted by worsening climate conditions.”
The historical rise of the industry-coined phrase ‘eco-terrorism’ and the 8th Circuit Court decision has worried climate activists and their allies. Branding Water Protectors, Land Defenders, and other environmental activists and defenders as “eco-terrorists” results in a “Green Scare” that has led to legal and legislative repercussions for climate justice defenders.
In a recent webinar supporting Jessica Reznicek, WPLC Community Legal Liaison Jaden Cowboy said, “Sentencing Jess under a federal terrorism enhancement for acts of civil disobedience targeting private property sets an alarming precedent for climate justice movements and endangers Indigenous and front-line defenders most impacted by worsening climate conditions. These communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. The ability to call for substantial measures to slow or halt climate change is literally a matter of life or death for us.”
Natali Segovia, Legal Director of the Water Protector Legal Collective and one of the authors of the amicus brief said, "It is inconceivable that a person seeking to protect the Earth from destruction--and whose actions particularly sought to stop the DAPL which continues operating without a permit--is sentenced to 8 years in federal prison, yet oil corporations are allowed to run rampant without adequate regulation or consequences for the environmental damage they inevitably cause. We are in a climate crisis but defenders are deemed terrorists and pipelines are an economic panacea. It's all backwards."
The issue with critical infrastructure laws
In direct response to the #NoDAPL movement, critical infrastructure bills have been enacted in 15 states and are pending in several states. These are aimed to increase criminal penalties for anyone taking action against destructive fossil fuel projects. The details vary by state but they impose felony charges for trespassing and “impeding” the operation of pipelines, power plants, and other “critical infrastructure.” Under these bills, acts such as blocking access to a construction site, have become felonies instead of misdemeanors. Prosecutors can also seek 10 times the original fines for any groups found to be “conspirators.”. These bills are aggressively backed by the oil and gas industry and intentionally raise the stakes for activists who engage in civil disobedience.
Support Jessica Reznicek
The Reznicek support team is considering options going forward that includes asking for a rehearing by the entire 8th circuit, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, and/or seeking presidential clemency.
Join 15,000+ people and 100+ organizations, including political prisoner and human rights attorney Steven Donziger, in signing the petition in support of Jessica Reznicek objection to the terrorism enhancement.
Write to Jessica Reznicek and find other ways to support her and her support committee by visiting: supportjessicareznicek.com/contact.