The Oregon militants should not be allowed to avoid prosecution

There are mixed reports coming out of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon where a group of armed people have taken over the property in the name of the ‘people’, to ‘restore the constitution’, ‘fight government tyranny’ and all the other things that get right-wing paramilitary groups get all fired up. Tim Dickinson has been following events closely and gives us some background on some of the members of this group.

On the one hand, there are reports of dissension in the group, with reports of fights, misuse of donated funds, boredom, falsely claiming military experience, and the like.

On the other hand, just yesterday another heavily armed group called the Pacific Patriot Network, along with another group called somewhat grandiosely the North American Coalition of Constitutional Militias, showed up to offer security and protection for the people already at the refuge. This seems to have come as a surprise to the already-heavily group who had not asked for this assistance, somewhat like how Ammon Bundy and his people came to protect the rights of the local community though they did not ask him to come and in fact want him to leave.

It looks like this group is not getting the grand showdown with the federal authorities that they are seeking. The authorities have taken no action against them whatsoever, not even cutting off power or blockading the site. The Bundy group even claims that the federal authorities have secretly assured them that no action will be taken against them.

The authorities seem to be working on the assumption that since these groups have few financial resources, they will be forced to leave soon simply because they will run out of money and too many of them will lose their jobs or other forms of livelihood, though it seems that many of these tough anti-government men seem to be living off government welfare and their wives’ income.

The local sheriff has offered to give the militia members safe passage to the state boundary. It is not clear that he has the authority to provide them that level of immunity for their actions. After all, the militants occupied federal lands. Also once they are out of his county, his jurisdiction ends other state and local law enforcement agencies take primacy. The governor of Oregon has said that the militia’s actions are unlawful and that “Those individuals illegally occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge need to decamp immediately and be held accountable.”

The group’s leader Bundy seems to have decided that he is the one calling the shots and said has said that at some point he will take up the sheriff’s offer and that they will leave the site as ‘free men’.

But should they be allowed to get away with absolutely no consequences for what they did? As Charles P. Pierce writes, what they did can be described as ‘armed sedition’ and he compared it to Shay’s rebellion that George Washington faced back in 1787.

This is an act of armed sedition against lawful authority. That is all that it is, and that is quite enough. This is not “an expression of anti-government sentiment.” Flipping off the governor as he drives by is “an expression of anti-government sentiment.” What Alex Jones does every day is “an expression of anti-government sentiment,” and god bless them all for it. That’s what the Founders had in mind. This is not an “occupation” following “a peaceful protest.” That would be all those folks who got bludgeoned and pepper-sprayed out of Zuccotti Park a couple of years back. (And when exactly did ABC News decide it wasn’t a news organization anymore?) These are men with guns who have declared themselves outside the law. These are men with guns who have taken something that belongs to all of us. These are traitors and thieves who got away with this dangerous nonsense once, and have been encouraged to get away with it again, and they draw their inspiration not solely from the wilder fringes of our politics, either. Ammon Bundy and his brothers should have been thrown in jail after they gathered themselves in rebellion the first time.

By now you would think that this group would have racked up a long list of crimes. But they claim that since they are on public property and are not obstructing anyone and have not defied any lawful order to leave, they have not committed any crime. But we know that it is not at all hard for the government to find charges to throw against anyone if they wanted to. The only reason that this looks like a mere camping outing is because the government has not done anything, in contrast to the deadly force it is so willing to use against unarmed young black men for the slightest reason, even if they are simply walking along the road.

The 2014 Bundy standoff set a bad precedent, Heidi Beirich, the director of intelligence for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The New York Times. “A year and half later, there have been no prosecutions whatsoever,” she said.

None of the Oregon group’s reported conduct thus far would appear to trigger any federal terrorism statute. Instead, the most aggressive approach that federal prosecutors in Oregon could reasonably take would be to accuse them of essentially stealing federal property.

Federal law makes it a felony, with a sentence of up to 10 years, for anyone who “converts to his use” government property worth over $1,000 without authorization. The government buildings and off-road vehicles reportedly being used by the protesters without authorization would certainly be valuable enough to trigger the potential felony charge.

But experts said they anticipated a less aggressive approach from the federal government, expecting misdemeanor charges or so-called petty offenses that are used to enforce regulations on federal land. That’s the same type of charge Black Lives Matter protesters faced outside a federal court building in St. Louis in August. Such charges could carry up to six months in prison, but typically result in probation.

“It’s a fine balance for federal authorities, in that they want to deter conduct like this but they don’t want to make these people into martyrs or heroes,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Loyola Law School.

Potential petty offenses may include trespassing, obstruction, disorderly conduct, littering or destruction of property. (Occupiers denied that they’ve damaged the property, and nothing on the exterior of the buildings suggested otherwise.)

There are also reports of other specific crimes being committed on the property such as the unauthorized access of the private information of wildlife refuge employees..

While the desire on the part of the authorities to avoid bloodshed is admirable, this completely hands-off approach seems to be emboldening the militias. In addition to Cliven Bundy’s continued defiance of the law, this is not the only case where armed people have defied charges for crimes by threatening to kill police who came to arrest them and got away with it.

If the Burns group also gets away with their act of lawlessness who knows what will come next?


  1. says

    Really, they should have worked for Wall St. That way they could be immune from prosecution, get bigger bonuses, and know how to avoid owing any tax at all.

  2. Matt G says

    It sets a horrible precedent to not prosecute them. We are a nation of laws, not of men/women. Of course it plays right into their ridiculous narrative that the government overreaches. It’s a win-win for them.

  3. machintelligence says

    By all means, prosecute them on felony charges. If convicted, they lose their right to possess firearms of any sort. A violation of that federal law calls for a minimum of 5 years in prison.

  4. lorn says

    Other than the possible creation of martyrs and playing into the whole ‘overreaching government’ story line I would tend to agree that they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Flattering the militia movement by overreacting seems counterproductive.

    No worries, these boys aren’t really going to get away with much. Cliven Bundy is going to have a hard time transferring his ranch to his sons with a $1,000,000 federal lien against it.

    These boys all have the ‘the laws don’t apply to me’ attitude down pat. All else fails their attitudes will soon enough have them run up against local law enforcement. If the feds wanted this to happen sooner than later they would arrange to unlimited supplies of beer and tequila to be delivered.

    Liquored up and loaded guns are a fine combination. What could possibly go wrong?

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