Megaload Monitor Jury Trial Outcomes


On Thursday, December 13, the Kootenai County Court in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, heard a six-hour, well-argued jury trial that appealed to the public, rather than the government, to defend the civil liberties of a citizen monitoring an Alberta tar sands megaload on Highway 95.  Idaho State Police Corporal Ron Sutton accused co-activists Cici Claar and Helen Yost of not wearing safety restraints in a parked vehicle, arrested them for resisting/obstructing an officer, and imposed an inexplicable night in the county jail, when they refused to identify themselves amongst the ExxonMobil police state on Highway 95 on August 26-27, 2011.  WIRT’s day in court started at 8:30 am with jury selection from about 30 gathered citizens, as Helen and her defending Moscow lawyer Ben Onosko weighed the odds stacked against them but hoped that a jury could empathize with the shock of sudden imprisonment for no significant reason.  Ben worked diligently throughout the trial to help the jury appreciate the precedents for civil liberties violations that they would set by siding with Corporal Sutton, who searched, seized, and jailed vehicle passengers without just cause.

Early in the trial, the prosecutor convinced Magistrate Judge Robert Caldwell to dismiss the evidence and results of the previous seat belt infraction trial and three pre-trial hearings on motions to suppress charges and a motion for reconsideration.  Representing the State of Idaho, the prosecutor presented her simple but assertive case that the defendant contested the infraction and ID request at roadside rather than in court.  The defense described Helen’s extensive academic and activist background and asserted that Idaho state police targeted the monitoring vehicle and its occupants for protest repression.  Although Helen never uttered a word in this court until trial conclusion, Corporal Sutton took the witness stand and noted his officer certifications before he described the place of the disputed incident and his approach of the driver Sharon Cousins’ vehicle and requests of driver and passenger IDs.  After commenting on the seatbelt-less state of the back seat passengers Cici and Helen, he explained the reasons for his ID requests and how Ms. Yost denied and debated them.

Ben cross-examined Corporal Sutton, asking about his previous contact with fellow state troopers escorting the megaloads, who told the corporal that the monitors had presented problems.  He challenged police reactions to the monitors as “megaload protesters,” the title of Corporal Sutton’s police report of the encounter, although Cici and Helen had not protested megaloads that night.  To illustrate this prejudice, Mr. Onosko provoked Corporal Sutton to admit that he and another arresting trooper on the scene, Officer Keys, had commented that “this is the protest organizer” after they secured ID from Ms. Yost after her arrest.  To refresh the officer’s memory of the overall incident for further questions, Ben sought to display the associated police video but, because he could only offer the entire video without the pertinent excerpts already admitted into evidence, it could not be published by the court and later watched by the jury, who were dismissed several times throughout the trial while the attorneys, judge, officer, and defendant viewed a few clips.  Over the prosecution’s objections however, Mr. Onosko submitted a color photo to the jury as Exhibit A, depicting the daytime location of the stopped megaload monitor vehicle.  The prosecutor continued to focus on the controlled access nature of that stretch of Highway 95, about ten miles south of Coeur d’Alene, which formed the expressed reason for Corporal Sutton’s investigation of the allegedly illegally parked vehicle.  As directed, no one mentioned that the same court had quickly rejected this parking infraction.

The defense screened the inadmissible video and asked Corporal Sutton to discuss numerous other aspects of the traffic stop: whether Cousins’ vehicle was still traveling when he activated his cruiser lights, the amount of time from the patrol car stop until the officer approached the side of the vehicle, the circumstances of passenger seat belts, and his unawareness of state rules not requiring passengers’ physical IDs.  Ben suggested that Sharon could have been safely slowing the vehicle on the highway shoulder before turning onto a graveled pull-off for agricultural land access.  As obvious in the police video, Corporal Sutton stated that the vehicle was moving when he pre-empted Sharon’s pull-over and thus halted her purported parking crime before she committed it and he cited her for it.  Mr. Onosko also questioned whether Corporal Sutton possessed the probable cause necessary to search the monitoring vehicle and Ms. Yost’s possessions, when he further requested and she relinquished her identification card to Corporal Sutton, which he obtained after her arrest.

The trial then took an extraordinary turn, when Ben laid legal foundations for appeal with a motion in limine that highlighted the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Brendlin v. California.  That high court and other similar proceedings found that passengers have the standing and right to challenge the legality of a traffic stop of a vehicle in which they are detained as well as the resulting seizures of drivers and passengers.  Mr. Onosko further argued that Corporal Sutton held no probable cause for the stop and only sought to suppress the rights of megaload monitors perceived as protesters.  But Judge Caldwell denied the untimely suppression motion, insisting that the court could have better reviewed it earlier at a pre-trial hearing.  Although Ben noted that the defense was unable to obtain the basis of the motion in advance, dependent on Corporal Sutton’s testimony about when and how the monitors’ vehicle stopped, the court overruled the defense motion and discussed and read jury deliberation rules, after the prosecution also contested Mr. Onosko’s submission of a defense of misfortune.

In less than an hour, the jury returned with a guilty verdict after the court had anticipated a more extensive recess and adjourned for the day.  Because it preceded and could have influenced sentencing, Helen neither prepared nor offered a concluding statement after the jury left the room.  She almost accepted jail time in lieu of the two years of probation that the prosecutor advised.  But this sentence would have also included probation, so she chose her only lifetime opportunity for a withheld judgment granted after a year of successful unsupervised probation.  Although Ms. Yost retorted to the judge that ANY probation represents suppression of the activism that she is responsible to lead and that could result in another inadvertent arrest, like this charge, the court will strike the guilty conviction from her growing criminal record if she incurs no criminal offenses greater than infraction before 2014.  Sentencing concluded at about 4:30 pm on Thursday, December 13, around the same time as the Highway 95 collisions south of Moscow.

Unattained justice still considering appeal proved costly, invoking a $500 fine instead of the $300 fine/bail offered by the prosecution, $500 in litigation expenses, $300 forfeited for co-arrestee Cici’s bail, about $300 in gas for eight or more round-trips to Coeur d’Alene and an accidentally fried planet, and one day in jail served upon an initial arrest that still feels like violated civil liberties.  But Wild Idaho Rising Tide has only just begun over the last few years to challenge fossil fuel incursions in the Northwest/Northern Rockies, to talk back to corporate co-opted state cops, and to assert our unintimidated innocence in the face of such climate-wrecking evil.  We offer our sincere gratitude to articulate, ambitious, activist attorneys Ben Onosko and Dana Johnson for their impressive legal expertise and arguments, to Jo and Terry for attending and driving Helen to the trial and providing meals and conversation, and to friends and family and WIRT and Occupy Spokane comrades and contributors for ongoing campaign solidarity, support, encouragement, and donations: we never backed down!  Please consider stuffing WIRT’s holiday stocking for some more dirty energy blocking: DONATE TO WIRT.

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