At 8:30 am on Thursday, December 13, the Kootenai County Court in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, will hold a full jury trial of Highway 95 tar sands megaload monitor Helen Yost, community organizer of the Moscow, Idaho-based climate change activist group, Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT). Idaho State Police (ISP) Corporal Ronald Sutton charged Yost with an infraction for failure to use a vehicle safety restraint and a misdemeanor of resisting and obstructing an officer early on August 27, 2011, when she refused to present ID and identify herself, citing Idaho codes regarding passenger IDs and seat belts in non-moving vehicles.
The incident occurred as Sutton covered his regular patrol route on Highway 95, about ten miles south of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, just before midnight on August 26. When he noticed a Toyota 4Runner parked for a few minutes near milepost 421, he approached its four female occupants who had been traveling for about an hour in the vicinity of an ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil tar sands transport and convoy of a dozen pilot trucks, flagger vehicles, and state trooper cars. On the previous night, six WIRT activists had sat, stood, laid down, and effectively blocked the same 200-foot-long, 413,000-pound, two-lane-wide megaload for a half hour, as it traversed a gauntlet of 150 protesters in downtown Moscow, Idaho.
Corporal Sutton accused driver and WIRT member Sharon Cousins of the infraction of stopping a vehicle in an emergency lane of a controlled access highway, a charge that a Kootenai County prosecutor dismissed on November 18, 2011. Sutton noticed that WIRT spokesperson Helen Yost and visiting activist Cici Claar were not wearing their seat belts in the back seat and requested their identification. Both passengers refused to present their IDs or give their legal names, stating that they had not violated any laws. Two ISP troopers on the scene issued infraction citations to all three women and arrested and jailed Claar and Yost for alleged obstruction.
During a Wednesday, April 11, 2012, trial in Idaho’s First District (Kootenai County) Court in Coeur d’Alene, Judge Robert Caldwell dismissed Yost’s seat belt infraction, after Corporal Sutton testified that he had not seen either of the co-defendants not wearing their safety restraints while the vehicle moved north along the megaload route. He further revealed that ISP officers assigned to the convoy had told him that the women had posed problems by parking off and along the mostly two-lane-wide road earlier in the evening. (For a description of court proceedings, listen to an interview with Helen Yost, Wild Idaho Rising Tide Monitor Seatbelt Infraction Dismissed, between 14:54 and 8:30 of the April 11 KRFP Radio Free Moscow Evening Report, Shiva, ACLU, Yost…)
Dozens of Idaho and Montana citizens have monitored oil company shipments since February 1, 2011, motivated by their concerns about dangerous and threatening convoy practices, restricted and risky traveler access to roads, and megaload use and damage of their narrow, scenic, and rural highways incrementally transformed into permanent corridors to climate-wrecking Alberta tar sands operations. For the court record of the April 11 infraction trial, Helen Yost disclosed her shared experience that Idaho troopers routinely ran license plate checks of vehicles on Highways 12 and 95 during megaload passages and even positioned a camera along Highway 12 for this purpose during ExxonMobil module transport. She asserted that Idaho state police purposely and systematically targeted, intimidated, harassed, and, in her case, arrested megaload monitors who scrutinized oil company invasions of taxpayer maintained U.S. highways. The Kootenai County Court agreed with Yost’s substituted counsel, Ben Onosko of Moscow, and ruled that the infraction charge was based on state trooper speculation that the SUV passengers had not been wearing their seat belts while the vehicle was earlier in motion. Judge Caldwell also noted that the three police-generated photos of back seat clutter provided insufficient evidence of safety restraint blockage and subsequent lack of use.
In a misdemeanor pre-trail hearing on February 17, Helen’s initial Spokane lawyer, Karen Lindholdt, presented a motion to suppress Claar’s and Yost’s obstruction charges, arguing that arresting officers had no lawful reason, besides unwarranted parking and seat belt infractions, to ask for the passengers’ IDs. Idaho state troopers consequently violated both defendants’ Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure. Although Judge Robert Caldwell dismissed this suppression motion, Mr. Onosko submitted numerous requests for discovery of the prosecution’s evidence throughout the summer and proposed on September 5 that Judge Caldwell reconsider his decision to reject the defendant’s earlier motion to suppress her obstruction charge. However, a substitute judge presided over that pre-trial hearing and could not rule on a motion for reconsideration. (Learn more about this situation through a segment of the Wednesday, September 5, KRFP Evening Report, Wild Idaho Rising Tide Activist Yost’s Obstructing Trial Postponed, between 10:44 and 9:04.)
Judge Caldwell finally heard Ben Onosko’s motion to reconsider on Friday, October 19, in Kootenai County Court. The Moscow attorney presented additional case law and new evidence and testimony supporting the motion, gleaned from the defendant and the arresting Idaho state trooper during the successful April 2012 hearing that refuted one of the officer’s reasons for ID request – a bogus ticket for Helen not wearing a passenger seat belt in a parked vehicle – after similar court rejection of the driver Sharon Cousin’s infraction for parking in a purported emergency lane of Highway 95 south of Coeur d’Alene. However, Judge Caldwell again ruled against us on Monday, November 5, and stated in his order that the officer had the right to demand identification.
Remaining, increasingly more intensive options for this court case range from entering a plea deal and concluding the lawsuit, to submitting a plea and appealing the case in district court, to pursuing a pre-trial conference and full jury trial and appealing to district court if necessary. Megaload monitors and their regional resistance community anticipate plenty of prevailing arguments concerning civil liberties, constitutional case law, and corporate police states, as they rigorously seek justice for the state’s illegal search and seizure of Yost along Highway 95 while monitoring a megaload. The ensuing jury trial commences at 8:30 am on December 13, in Kootenai County Court Room 7 at 324 West Garden Avenue in Coeur d’Alene, near the second and third alternative interstate megaload routes. WIRT offers its gratitude to attorneys Dana Johnson and Ben Onosko for their extensive case law research and exemplary communication essential to winning this civil liberties case.
But if the jury does not appreciate the precedents for civil liberties violations that they would establish by siding with ISP Corporal Ron Sutton, who wrongfully searched, seized, and jailed this parked vehicle passenger without just cause, Magistrate Judge Robert Caldwell may immediately, like Sutton, impose jail time, fines, and probation. As corporate interlopers and government facilitators insidiously erode American rights to privacy, security, and access to public resources, this instance of a megaload imposed police state on Idaho highways illustrates a disturbing, escalating trend that jeopardizes citizens and activists alike. (Peruse the December 4 AlterNet article They Can Do That?! Ten Outrageous Tactics Cops Get Away With.) WIRT will provide ongoing updates on breaking case developments.