Jeffrey Hush, a Dakota Access Pipeline opponent arrested during a protest in October, was headed back to North Dakota this week.
He was to face trial on charges of criminal trespass and engaging in a riot on Friday. Hush charged two plane tickets — one for himself and one for a friend to serve as his witness — from Middletown, Conn., to Bismarck.
“I was told I could count on trial, so I could buy the plane tickets,” Hush said.
Come Tuesday, the prosecutor called to tell his attorney that he would be cancelling the trial, dismissing these charges and re-filing new ones later. Unless Hush wanted to take a plea bargain.
Week by week, the Morton County State’s Attorney’s office has dismissed cases such as Hush’s, which arose from a mass arrest on Oct. 22, when 126 protesters were jailed during a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So far, 34 cases have been dismissed, just days before trial was scheduled, according to Sandra Freeman, criminal case coordinator for the Water Protector Legal Collective.
The situation has put some protesters in a bind.
Hush, a movement therapist who qualified for a public defender, said he can hardly afford to pay for the non-refundable plane tickets he bought. And he does not think he could buy tickets for another trial.
“Essentially, they’re trying to force me to plea bargain,” said Hush, who maintains his innocence.
Defense attorneys involved in these cases said prosecutors are offering protesters a deal in which they can plead guilty to a Class B misdemeanor, with a penalty of no jail time and forfeited bond money, or they can wait to be re-charged with another crime.
“The state’s attorney has been candid,” Freeman said. “This person can plead to a charge we cannot prove or we will dismiss the charge we cannot prove and we will file a new charge and get an arrest warrant on the eve of trial.”
Two phone messages and an email message left for Brian Grosinger, the prosecutor handling the cases, were not returned on Wednesday.
The prosecutors have been dismissing the charges, because they were unable, in several instances, to prove criminal trespass cases at trial. A judge found repeatedly that protesters were not given proper notice that they were trespassing.
On Oct. 22, about 200 protesters walked through private property to a pipeline construction site where several people had attached themselves to equipment. They were intercepted by police, who surrounded the group and arrested them. Authorities said, at the time, that protesters tried to breach a police line and turned pepper spray on an officer. Hush said people were leaving during the arrest, and he did not know the land was private.
Freeman said that, so far, three people arrested on Oct. 22 have taken up the state on its plea offer. Three people failed to appear, and bench warrants have been issued for them, she said.
It’s not clear yet what crime Hush would face if re-charged. On cases from Oct. 10, the prosecutor has re-charged at least eight people with obstruction of a government function, a Class B misdemeanor, according to court records. No one has yet been re-charged from the Oct. 22 date, Freeman said.
Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at firstname.lastname@example.org