Judge says Dakota pipeline protest suit unlikely to succeed

Markets Associated Press

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, provided by the Morton County Sheriff's Department, law enforcement and protesters clash near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D. A federal judge said Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, pipeline ... opponents involved in the violent clash with police are unlikely to succeed in a lawsuit alleging excessive force and civil rights violations. (Morton County Sheriff's Department via AP, File) (The Associated Press)

Dakota Access pipeline opponents involved in a violent clash with police in North Dakota in November are unlikely to succeed in a lawsuit alleging excessive force and civil rights violations, a federal judge said Tuesday.

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U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland didn't immediately rule on a motion filed Monday by law enforcement to dismiss the lawsuit, but he did deny an earlier request by pipeline opponents to bar police from using such things as chemical agents and water sprays as a means of dispersing crowds of protesters.

Hovland said protesters "are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims," which include that police used inappropriate force, injuring more than 200 protesters, and violated their civil rights. The judge said protesters were trespassing during the confrontation and that "no reasonable juror could conclude" that officers acted unreasonably.

"The rights of free speech and assembly do not mean, and have never meant, that everyone who chooses to protest against the Dakota Access pipeline may do so at any time, any place, and under any set of conditions they choose in total disregard of the law," Hovland said. "To allow that to occur would result in anarchy and an end to the rule of law in civilized society."

Rachel Lederman, lead attorney for the protesters, called Hovland's ruling "disturbing" and said she'll appeal.

"The judge indicates that he's formed opinions based on television and newspapers and pretty much disregards the large volume of evidence that the plaintiffs have presented," she said.

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The Nov. 20-21 confrontation occurred at a blockaded bridge near the encampment where pipeline opponents have gathered in the hundreds and sometimes thousands since last summer, fighting a $3.8 billion project they believe could harm drinking water and Native American cultural sites. That's disputed by Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based developer of the four-state pipeline to move North Dakota oil 1,200 miles through South Dakota and Iowa to Illinois.

Law enforcement acknowledges using tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and water sprays against protesters they say assaulted officers with rocks, burning logs, lug nuts, padlocks and frozen water bottles. Officers say they were heavily outnumbered by protesters and were being marked by lasers and spotlights, leading to fears they were being targeted by snipers. One officer was struck in the head by a thrown object and dazed.

"In addition to being concerned about the obvious risks to the physical safety of law enforcement on the scene if overrun, there was genuine concern about the potential need to resort to deadly force for the protection of law enforcement and emergency responders," the officers' attorneys said in asking that the case be dismissed.

Protesters are seeking unspecified money damages. They allege a wide range of injuries, including burns, broken bones, eye injuries, hypothermia, and wounds requiring stitches and staples. Among those injured was Sophia Wilansky, a 21-year-old New York woman who was hospitalized with a serious arm injury. Protesters maintain she was injured by a grenade thrown by police, while authorities say she was hurt by a small propane tank that protesters rigged to explode.

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