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Editorial: 'Necessity defense' could unleash chaos

GRAND FORKS — Is it OK to break the law if it's in the name of perceived public good? Specifically, can people who trespassed and tampered with a multimillion-dollar pipeline avoid jail time if they can prove it was for the sake of slowing climate change?

This is the issue that's before a jury in Bagley, Minn., where two women from Washington face trial for attempting to shut down two pipelines in northwest Minnesota in 2016.

A well-written report released earlier this week by Minnesota Public Radio lays out the background of the case. According to the report, Annette Klapstein and Emily Johnston intentionally broke the law "in the name of saving the planet." They broke in to the Enbridge Energy site and used bolt cutters to snap a chain that guarded the valve. That's a felony.

And, as MPR noted, they have convinced the presiding judge to let them use a "necessity defense" approach in the case. Translation: They feel their act is justified because pipelines represent imminent danger.

Is their act justifiable?

No, it's not. And accepting that excuse would unleash a torrent of chaos along pipelines and infrastructure — both private and public — nationwide.

Valve-turners, as they're called, are criminals. While their efforts may conjure a nod in the direction of peace and harmony, these people are not Robin Hood. They are, as proven in courts of law as well as courts of opinion, lawbreakers.

They have been rightly prosecuted in the past. Earlier this year, for instance, Michael Foster, of Seattle, and Samuel Jessup, of Vermont, were tried for trespassing and shutting off a pipeline valve in North Dakota. Both men were found guilty; Foster was sentenced to three years in prison with two years deferred, and Jessup to two years in prison with both years deferred.

Foster and Jessup were not allowed to use the "necessity defense." That's why it's surprising to learn Klapstein and Johnston are being allowed to use it, although the judge has ruled the two will not be allowed to present a cavalcade of experts to discuss climate change. So the unique defense will be allowed, but the defendants will be on their own to present it.

If they're successful, it will open another kind of pipeline: general civil disobedience for any cause deemed an "imminent danger" to the public. That could be a bad omen for all sorts of industries, especially energy-related companies. Here in North Dakota — where oil and coal are great economy drivers — this could be troublesome.

Protesters deserve the right to assemble. They deserve the right to peaceably make their point. They do not deserve the right to tamper with infrastructure or other private property to try to make that point.

To write our laws, Americans rely on the U.S. Congress in Washington, not the private congresses in citizens' minds.

We hope the jury in Clearwater County agrees.