ND Attorney General Says DAPL Land Purchase Illegal; Could Affect Criminal Charges Against Water Protectors

The North Dakota Attorney General says Dakota Access’s land purchase violates the state’s corporate farming law, according to a July 3 Bismarck Tribune article.

The company purchased much of the Cannonball Ranch north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in fall of 2016, when pipeline protests were ongoing in the area.

State law prohibits corporations and limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland and ranchland unless the land is necessary for commercial development.

According to the Lakota People’s Law Project, this could have a significant impact on criminal charges leveled against water protectors arrested on this property. Since Dakota Access LLC didn’t legally own the land, it didn’t have the right to tell the authorities to evict water protectors.

Screen capture of video showing the heavily militarized response to water protectors.

Bending the Law to Benefit Dakota Access LLC

Dakota Access LLC bought the 6,000 acre parcel of land in the fall of 2016, and quickly got the North Dakota Attorney General to look the other way, at least for a little bit. A Feb. 26 AP story — Dakota Access LLC still owns North Dakota ranchland — explains as follows:

In October 2016, [Dakota Access attorney Lawrence] Bender sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office that cited incidents of protesters trespassing and threatening workers. One month later, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announced that the company’s purchase was “temporarily necessary” to provide a safer work environment in light of civil disturbances near construction areas.

Stenehjem’s office made an agreement with the company that reserved the state’s right to file a future lawsuit to enforce corporate farming laws. The agreement was going to expire Dec. 31, 2017, but was extended through June 30, 2018.

Questions: 1) Does the North Dakota Attorney General have the right to unilaterally suspend laws to “provide a safe work environment? 2) In making this decision, did the Attorney General take into consideration that Dakota Access LLC was the major contributor to the “unsafe work environment,” escalating violence by hiring private security and encouraging excessive police response?

It’s Not Over Until It’s Over

We are in a news cycle of perpetual crisis. Considering oil pipelines alone, there’s DAPL, Keystone XL, Enbridge Line 3, the Canadian Trans Mountain Pipeline and others. That’s not counting the immigration crackdown, Russian election meddling, tariffs, you name it. It’s easy to lose track of stories like DAPL which seem like they’re in the rear view mirror. Perhaps this story is a reminder that even when it seems like a story is over, it’s not over.

Madonna Thunder Hawk, Lakota People’s Law Project Tribal Liaison, wrote the following in an email:

As a Lakota grandmother, I have some very important news to share with you! As you are likely aware, on February 1, 2017, Dakota Access LLC called in law enforcement to arrest Chase Iron Eyes and other water protectors on land the company claimed to own. This supposed “ownership” is a point of contention that our Lakota People’s Law Project legal team will address at Chase’s trial this November.

Now, in a huge development for the case, the North Dakota attorney general has sued Dakota Access LLC, charging that it never acquired legal ownership of that land. A North Dakota state statute expressly prohibits a corporation like Dakota Access from acquiring or owning North Dakota farm or ranch land.

We Lakota know that the land belongs to us (under the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868). In our latest video update, Lakota Law Chief Counsel Daniel Sheehan talks about the AG’s suit and the impact on Chase’s legal defense. Please watch and share it on Facebook…

A recent article by the Associated Press’s Blake Nicholson quotes our notice to the court: “Given that Dakota Access can’t legally own the land under state law, the company ‘had no legal authority whatsoever to direct law enforcement authorities to forcibly remove'” Chase and the others participating in ceremony at Last Child Camp.

Comment: A key legal issue will be whether the North Dakota Attorney General had the authority to look the other way and allow Dakota Access temporary ownership of land it had no legal right to buy.

State Penalties Are Tepid

File photo.

Whatever the impact might be on water protectors’ legal cases, it’s clear Dakota Access will get the lightest of penalties for violating state law. According to the Bismarck Tribune article, the state is seeking a $25,000 fine. That’s not even a drop in the bucket for a company like Dakota Access.

Dakota Access missed two deadlines to sell the land: Dec. 31 and June 30. In addition to the $25,000 fine, the state lawsuit seeks to give Dakota Access LLC up to a year to sell the land, its third extension.

In the latest development, Dakota Access seems to be dropping the veneer that it will sell the land and is now arguing in court that North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law is unconstitutional. In a story published today in the West Fargo Pioneer — Dakota Access argues N.D. corporate farming law is unconstitutional — Dakota Access argues the North Dakota Attorney General’s lawsuit should be dismissed “because the Cannonball Ranch continues to operate as a ranch, with the pipeline company leasing it to the previous owners.”

To state the obvious, the North Dakota legal system got out the kid gloves for Dakota Access and the brass knuckles for water protectors.

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