Judge Keeps Charges|Against Refuge Occupiers

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Oregon refuge occupiers will face charges they claimed were unconstitutional bans on their right to bear arms and criticize the government, a federal judge ruled.
     Judge Anna J. Brown issued a ruling Friday afternoon finding that Ammon Bundy and the 25 other defendants charged for their roles in the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge cannot avoid charges that they conspired to use force, intimidation and threats to keep federal employees from doing their jobs.
     Defense attorney Amy Baggio argued in a May 23 hearing that the charge was so vague that it “chills the most crucial activity: political dissent.”
     Brown disagreed in her ruling Friday.
     Section 930(b) and its prohibition on possessing a firearm in a federal facility with the intent to use that firearm in the commission of a crime, however, does not prohibit a substantial amount of expression protected by the First Amendment nor conduct protected by the Second Amendment,” Brown wrote.
     The judge has not yet decided on the occupiers’ challenge to the most serious charge against them: using weapons to commit a violent crime.
     Defense attorney Per Olsen told Brown that there was no evidence that the occupation was a violent crime. He contrasted it with crimes like bank robberies and carjackings, where the threat of harm is commonly understood.
     “As long as we’ve had banks, we’ve had bank robbers,” Olson said at the May 23 hearing. “We all understand what they’re after and what they’re capable of. To take physically from somebody’s presence is different than to prevent them from doing their job. We all understand what a bank robbery is. Violence is in the air, right there.”
     The occupiers and the government have traded arguments about whether the occupation was a violent crime since proceedings in the case began in January.
     At the occupiers’ detention hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman said the Jan. 27 shooting death of LaVoy Finicum resolved the question of whether the occupation was violent. Oregon state police gunned down Finicum in a traffic stop that netted the arrest of the leaders of the occupation.
     “Your actions, not your speech, threatened the lives of law enforcement officers who were just doing their jobs,” Beckerman said in January. “You created a danger to the people of Harney County, and to every person who went out to the refuge.”
     The judge added, “This was not a theoretical threat. We know it was dangerous because one person lost his life.”
     But the occupiers have argued that Finicum’s death is a factor that weighs in the other direction. Ryan Bundy’s former attorney, Andrew Bates, said the militants were not to blame for Finicum’s death.
     “As far as the danger, from what I read, the only violence in this situation was at the hands of the government,” Bates said.
     Ryan Bundy is now representing himself.
     Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, appearing at a February hearing in support of the occupiers, told press that the government was responsible for the violence of the occupation.
     “I advocate free, peaceful assembly and that is exactly what happened,” Fiore said. “Nobody pointed a gun at anybody, except the police.”
     U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight told Brown the question of whether the occupation was a violent crime was one for a jury to resolve.
     The occupiers’ trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 7, and could stretch into 2017.

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