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Minnesota judge orders police away from pipeline protest camp

A blockade of a campsite based on an easement issue could deprive its owners of their constitutional rights, the judge ruled.

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. (CN) — A rural Minnesota judge has ordered police to stand down on an easement issue used to crack down on a group of opponents to the controversial Line 3 pipeline project, saying that an alleged blockade preventing protesters from coming and going from their campsite interferes with their rights. 

The dispute revolves around access to a property in the north-central Minnesota county of Hubbard. Opponents of Enbridge's Line 3 have set up camp there with the permission of the property owner, a nonprofit called the Switchboard Trainers Network.

Switchboard, along with activists including former owner and Honor The Earth founder Winona LaDuke, sued Hubbard County Sheriff Corwin Aukes last Friday, alleging that the sheriff and other law enforcement agencies had created a blockade of the property, citing people who traversed its only driveway with misdemeanors. 

Aukes and Assistant Hubbard County Attorney Anna Emmerling argued that by transferring the property to Switchboard, LaDuke voided an easement she had obtained over a portion of the driveway that had been tax forfeited in 1928 and placed in the county’s possession. The county declared that path a trail on June 28 and closed it to motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic, in a move Emmerling and Aukes both said was motivated by a desire to curb criminal acts by protesters. 

“This is a property where people are organizing to commit crimes. To say that this is an easement dispute does not put the proper context on the situation,” Emmerling told Hubbard County District Judge Jana Austad at a Thursday afternoon hearing. “We are enforcing the easement, your honor, because we are trying to control an outbreak of crimes.”

But Austad ruled against the county and granted a temporary restraining order to Switchboard, LaDuke and activists Tara Houska and AhnaCole Chapman early Friday morning.

“Defendants seem to assert the restrictions on the ability of plaintiffs and guests to use the property is a police action justified by issues related to Line 3 protests,” she wrote. “If that is accurate there are lawful means of police action by warrant. This action is about an easement. There is no showing that the law is being broken on the disputed easement.” 

She blocked the county and Aukes’ office from “barricading, obstructing, or otherwise interfering with access to the property” and from stopping entrants or issuing citations without the express consent of the property owner or its tenants and invitees. Warrant service and other regular policing duties, she added, were still options to them. 

Jason Steck, who represents Chapman and argued the plaintiffs’ case at Thursday’s hearing, celebrated the ruling in a brief Friday morning email. 

“We are obviously gratified with the judge’s ruling.  As the judge said, this case is about the validity of Ms. LaDuke’s easement.  That is all it should be about,” he wrote. “The judge rejected the county’s heavy-handed attempts to literally make dozens of criminal cases out of an easement that had been used as a driveway without objection for 90 years.”

A motion for a temporary injunction is pending, Steck said Thursday night. “Then the case proceeds, as a normal civil case. Hopefully as a normal easement case," he said.

Aukes, reached Friday morning, said he hadn’t heard about the order yet and did not return a request for further comment. The Hubbard County Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday night or early Friday afternoon. 

The easement dispute, while not explicitly tied to Line 3’s construction, is one of several legal controversies which have played out around the pipeline that would carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day. The pipeline’s certificate of need from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is on track for debate before the Minnesota Supreme Court. Other disputes over the pipeline’s permitting have been largely settled in just under a decade of legal wrangling. 

The fight over the pipeline recently has moved from the courtroom to the construction site. Enbridge, the Canadian company building Line 3, has completed construction on the pipeline’s shortcuts through North Dakota and Wisconsin. Construction on the 337-mile portion of the project running through Minnesota began in December and is now over 60% complete, the company reports. This summer, some activists – dubbed “water protectors” by their supporters – have sought to slow pipeline construction through protests on-site, in some cases chaining or locking themselves to construction equipment or blocking roadways. 

Arrests of protesters have spiked this summer as demonstrations ramped up, with nearly 600 people arrested so far in connection with the protests. LaDuke herself was arrested for trespassing Monday in Wadena County, along with several other activists. She spent three days in custody before being released on Thursday with conditions, one of which was to avoid Line 3 work areas. 

The easement dispute, Aukes said last week, was a way of curbing criminal activity.

“We’re dealing with masses causing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to Enbridge equipment. We’re dealing with anarchy in different areas of the county. These people are coming in and out of this camp," the sheriff said.

At Thursday’s hearing, Emmerling told Austad that the campers were not being cited for leaving, only for entering. Steck disputed that assertion, saying that at least one one of the plaintiffs had been cited while leaving, among others. .

Either way, Austad said, that practice didn’t help the sheriff’s case.

“The argument that the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Department is only preventing use of the easement if people are attempting to enter the property, not exit the property, is suggestive that the sheriff’s actions are directed toward a law enforcement goal, rather than seeking to address property rights,” the judge wrote. 

The next hearing in the case has yet to be scheduled. The new Line 3 pipeline, a replacement for an existing pipeline built in the 1960s, is expected to be substantially completed by year’s end.

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