(CN) - Father-and-son ranchers convicted of starting fires on public lands must be resentenced to much longer terms behind bars, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
The federal appeals court found that Steven and Dwight Hammonds' sentences of one year and three months in prison, respectively, were far below the five-year mandatory minimum for a federal arson conviction.
A federal jury in Pendleton, Ore., convicted the Hammonds in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands related to fires they started in 2001 and 2006. The 2001 fire was first set on the Hammonds property, and a teenage relative of the Hammonds countered their defense that they set the fire to burn off an invasive species on their property.
Steven had instructed, rather, to "light up the whole country on fire," the teen testified. As the blaze spread to the nearby Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, burning through 139 acres of public lands, the teenager allegedly took shelter in a creek.
Steven Hammond was also convicted of starting the 2006 Krumbo Butte Fire in Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The jury acquitted the Hammonds of a conspiracy charge related to two other 2006 fires, and several other charges were dismissed after a deal whereby the Hammonds agreed to waive most of the appeal rights to bring the case to a speedy end.
A superseding indictment in the case suggests that the Hammonds had a longtime beef with the local Bureau of Land Management office and its employees. Indeed the ranchers, who leased grazing lands from the agency, had threatened its agents on more than one occasion, prosecutors said.
The Department of Justice had alleged at trial that the Hammonds "set the fires to reduce the growth of juniper trees and sagebrush, and accelerate the growth of rangeland grasses used for cattle feed."
Though the ranchers - the elder being in his 70s and the son in his 40s - faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence and fines of up $250,000, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene gave them relatively light terms behind bars, citing Eighth Amendment concerns and conjecturing that Congress had not meant for the stiff sentence to apply to fires in "the wilderness."
The government appealed to the 9th Circuit, a three-judge panel of which reversed on Friday and ordered Hogan to resentence the offenders to the statutory minimum.
"A minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard," wrote U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy, who sat on the panel by designation from the Eastern District of Michigan.
"Congress has 'broad authority' to determine the appropriate sentence for a crime and may justifiably consider arson, regardless of where it occurs, to be a serious crime," Murphy added. "Even a fire in a remote area has the potential to spread to more populated areas, threaten local property and residents, or endanger the firefighters called to battle the blaze. The September 2001 fire here, which nearly burned a teenager and damaged grazing land, illustrates this very point."
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