The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. DeChristopher on Friday, September 14, 2012.
The defendant, Tim DeChristopher, bid on oil and gas leases at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction. His purpose in bidding was to disrupt the auction because of the harmful effect drilling on the leased land would have on the environment. DeChristoher won several bids and the auction was eventually canceled before its completion. DeChristopher was unable to pay the money required by his successful bids. He was convicted of making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (Count 2) and of “organizing or participating in a scheme, arrangement, plan, or agreement to circumvent or defeat the provisions of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act in violation of 30 U.S.C. § 195(a)(1)” (Count 1).
DeChristopher appealed on several grounds. The first was that the evidence was insufficient to convict on Count 1 because 30 U.S.C. § 195(a)(1) requires more than one person. The court reviewed for plain error and in a 2-1 decision, after parsing the language of the statute, found none. The defendant also argued that because a violation of 30 U.S.C. § 195(a)(1) must be knowing, a conviction required he know which specific statutory or regulatory provision he was violating. The court held that knowledge of a specific statute was not required; it was enough that DeChristopher knew his actions would circumvent or defeat statutes and regulations governing oil and gas leases.
DeChristopher argued that there was insufficient evidence of his intent to bid in bad faith so his conviction for making a false statement on the bidder registration form should be overturned. Because he had no intent to bid at all when he signed the form, he could not have knowingly made a false statement. The court found a reasonable jury could have concluded he intended to bid when he signed the form because that was consistent with an intent to bid.
The Tenth Circuit ruled against the defendant’s Confrontation Clause argument as the excluded evidence of the BLM’s failure to comply with environmental laws in the leasing process was irrelevant to the charged offenses. The court ruled against his necessity defense argument because he had the legal alternative of joining a lawsuit filed by other groups to enjoin the leases. Despite defendant being the only person ever prosecuted for a violation of 30 U.S.C. § 195(a)(1), the court found proper the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for discovery on selective prosecution as he had not proved discriminatory effect.
Finally, the Tenth Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that the sentence he received was in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech. The trial judge made statements at sentencing regarding the defendant’s speech, such as “If this hadn’t been a continuing trail of statements by Mr. DeChristopher about his advocacy, as he calls it civil disobedience, and that he will continue to fight, and I am prepared to go to prison, then others are going to have to be prepared to go with me, that causes me to feel under the sentencing laws before me that a term of imprisonment is required.”
First Amendment protections apply at sentencing, but the court can consider a defendant’s beliefs for relevant purposes. Here, the district court did not violate the first Amendment because “far from punishing Defendant for the content of his public statements, simply relied on those statements to determine the sentence necessary to deter Defendant from future violations and to promote respect for the law.”