Lawsuit alleges that pipeline company co-opted Louisiana law enforcement to target environmental protesters with felony charges
Three water protectors have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in response to their false arrests during protests of the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in St. Martin's Parish, Louisiana in August 2018. Cynthia Spoon, Sophia Cook-Phillips, and Eric Moll were traveling in a canoe and kayak on the waters of Bayou Bee to observe and peacefully protest the construction. As part of a continuing effort to suppress the protests, Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC (BBP) and HUB Enterprises (HUB) directed "private duty" law enforcement officers from the Louisiana Department of Probation and Parole to arrest the water protectors for "unlawful entry of a critical infrastructure," a recently enhanced felony under Louisiana law.
"Bayou Bridge Pipeline used Louisiana law and Louisiana law enforcement officers as tools to suppress peaceful protests on open waters," said Eric Foley from the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, attorneys for the plaintiffs. "We intend to hold them accountable for their attack on our clients and their plan to silence the voices of these water protectors."
At the time of the arrest, BBP was attempting to construct a 163-mile pipeline from the Texas-Louisiana border across Native American land and 700 bodies of water to St. James Parish, Louisiana. The goal was to link fracked oil in North Dakota with refiners and export facilities on the Gulf Coast. The project was opposed by environmentalists who argued the pipeline would exacerbate Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis as well as threaten wildlife and contaminate drinking water in the surrounding areas.
In the summer of 2018, protests were underway. Protesters, often known as "water protectors," were repeatedly arrested, charged with misdemeanors and released.
In an effort to suppress the persistent protests, representatives of BBP and HUB (a security company hired by BBP) reached out to St. Martin's Parish Sheriff Ronald Theriot and the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections' Probation and Parole Division in order to increase law enforcement presence and punish protesters.
They agreed that peaceful protesters would be arrested on felony, not misdemeanor, charges after August 1, when amendments to Louisiana law would expand the statute forbidding "unauthorized entry of critical infrastructure" to expose pipeline trespassers to imprisonment at hard labor for up to five years. However, the amendment specifically excepted both persons exercising their First Amendment rights and also those engaged in "recreational activities conducted in the open or unconfined areas around a pipeline," specifically including boating.
On August 9, 2018, Ms. Spoon, Ms. Cook-Phillips, and Mr. Moll were paddling in the public, navigable waterways of the Bayou Bee near the construction site. After setting out the group was confronted by a construction barge and multiple fan boats carrying BBP and HUB employees. The fan boats immediately attempted to blow the protesters into the banks. A company representative pointed to the plaintiffs and instructed law enforcement agents, who had just arrived, to arrest them. The plaintiffs were not violating any laws and were, in fact, protected by the statute.
The law enforcement officers followed the company's orders. Ms. Cook-Phillips and Ms. Spoon were both, without any warning or indication of being under arrest, grabbed by the arms, wrenched from their boats and restrained. Mr. Moll swam to shore, after an officer grabbed his paddle, where he was knocked to the ground, handcuffed and dragged back to the fan boat.
Officers consistently refused to provide any information about their arrests. When asked what the charges were, Officer Ward responded, "I'm not sure what the statute is. We'll find out when we get to the landing."
All three were detained at the construction site and then taken into custody by St. Martin Parish Sheriff's deputies, who arrived on the scene to join the BBC, HUB, and Probation and Parole forces. The plaintiffs were booked with felony violations of the newly enhanced statute, "unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure," as well as "resisting an officer," and were released on $10,000 bonds each later that day. The District Attorney has not prosecuted the cases against them.
A journalist, Karen Savage, was covering the protest from nearby dry land. Evading attempts by BBP/HUB employees to block her, she was able to witness and film the arrests. Ms. Savage's photos are included in the lawsuit; more photos, together with her video and narrative of the arrests, were published last year. https://theappeal.org/louisiana-police-arrest-bayou-bridge-pipeline-protesters/
"We are honored to stand with these water protectors against parties that care as little for Constitutional rights as they do for our environment," said Emily Washington from MacArthur.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, alleges violations of the First, Fourth, Fourteenth Amendments as well as violations of the Louisiana Constitution. Plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Contributed by the MacArthur Justice Center