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Lakota People's Law Project

Attorneys for Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) opponent Ruby Montoya submitted a motion on Thursday to withdraw her plea of guilty in one of the final remaining cases related to the controversial Dakota Access pipeline. They now await a response from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.

In 2016, Montoya and fellow DAPL opponent Jessica Reznicek engaged in a series of activities in protest of the pipeline, which has since been completed and put into operation despite its lack of a federal permit and legal challenges from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others.

Montoya and Reznicek are accused of using a welder to make small holes in sections of empty, nonoperational pipe. Montoya has been charged in federal court with nine felonies, eight of which carry mandatory minimums of at least five years incarceration. Reznicek was recently sentenced to eight years in federal prison, and her sentencing included a so-called “terrorism enhancement,” which Montoya says is a miscariage of justice.

“Ruby and Jessica’s actions confronted environmental destruction by private industry, rather than targeting federal property, federal personnel or the public,” said attorney Daphne Silverman in court filings last week. “The terrorism enhancement should never have applied to either of their cases. Ruby is no terrorist. She’s a schoolteacher who cares about protecting the environment for her students and the generations to follow.”

The submitted court filings assert Montoya’s innocence and say she was coerced into accepting an “illusory plea bargain.” They detail a number of reasons — including alleged conflict of interest by her original counsel — why Montoya should be permitted to withdraw her plea.

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The filings indicate that the indictment against Montoya and her co-defendant failed to corroborate damages meeting the statutory minimum of $100,000 required by some of the counts alleged by the prosecutor to be federal offenses. After the original guilty plea was accepted, an oil infrastructure estimator projected that it would cost just $12,000 “in a worst case scenario” to repair each pipeline puncture Montoya and Reznicek are accused of causing — significantly lower than the millions that government prosecutors asserted in court.

In addition, filings claim, some charges are not accurate because the pipes were not actively in use at the time they were allegedly damaged. According to precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in a prior Eighth Circuit case, damage must occur to pipes “actively employed in interstate commerce” to qualify for federal prosecution.

Chase Iron Eyes serves as co-director and lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, a firm assisting with the defense. “The defendants should not be found guilty of any substantive counts in the indictment, and therefore they gain nothing by pleading out,“ he said. “This is all part of a pattern of deception to elevate charges and prosecute in federal court. The terrorism enhancement would cause Ruby to be placed in a punitive category with major criminals. Ruby has no criminal history at all.”

Montoya said that she was moved to act at the behest of friends in a religious activist group after indigenous leaders asked for help in stopping the pipeline’s encroachment on their unceded treaty lands. She claims that her goal was simply to prevent the destruction of the earth, and she never imagined she’d be labeled a terrorist by her own government.

“People need to have faith that their justice system works. In this case, and in almost every other ruling that has involved the Dakota Access pipeline, the justice system has shown favor to the rich and powerful and prejudice against anyone who opposes a private oil company’s gross misuse of the land and the law,” Montoya said. “I’m being charged and tried as a ‘terrorist’ over four tiny holes in an empty piece of metal. Meanwhile, the insurrectionists of January 6th continue to be sentenced with no terrorism enhancements, though they clearly intended to disrupt constitutional duties and coerce or harm members of Congress.”

The Lakota People's Law Project operates under the 501(c)(3) Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and policy center.

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