Lawyers for Standing Rock protesters are pleading for more help

Hundreds of DAPL protesters have no lawyer at all.

Protesters, including military veterans and tribal elders, joined forces at the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman
Protesters, including military veterans and tribal elders, joined forces at the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota. CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Trials for Dakota Access Pipeline protesters begin next week, but there aren’t enough attorneys to take their cases. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department lists 264 people who have no lawyer at all, and the 265 people who have been assigned public defense attorneys aren’t receiving adequate counsel.

In order to fix the problem, advocates from North Dakota and Minnesota are now trying to convince the North Dakota Supreme Court to give the green light to lawyers from other states — who have no license to practice in North Dakota — to come in and help. A group of 10 legal organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and lawyers from both states filed an official petition to the the court on Wednesday.

There have been mass arrests of DAPL protesters since August, when thousands of protesters set up camps on the Standing Rock reservation. The protesters, who call themselves Water Protectors, faced persistent, militarized policing by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department over the past few months. More than 550 people were detained for trumped up misdemeanor charges — including disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, and trespassing — and felony charges for reckless endangerment and conspiracy charges.

Some people were arrested more than once.

Demonstrators are adamant that the vast majority of them were peaceful, fighting for sacred land and safe water. But they will soon appear in court with insufficient legal representation.

“Petitioners know of no other time in which comparable strain has been placed on a court system, relative to its size, by such a surge of arrests,” petitioners wrote, pleading for the state Supreme Court to permit outside lawyers to step in. “While the total number of requests for indigent counsel cannot yet be determined, it is clear that there will be more requests for counsel than can be accommodated by present resources. Similarly, the demand for private counsel also exceeds the capacity of the local bar.”

Petitioners said that 79 attorneys are bogged down with 265 cases. “Absent the court granting the relief requested, indigent defendants’ Fifth Amendment right to representation by counsel and Sixth Amendment right to counsel of their choice may be put in jeopardy,” they wrote.

The petition was filed two days after State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson filed a motion accusing lawyers from outside the state of consulting with outsiders to instigate protests and intentionally bog down North Dakota’s legal system.

“Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest strategy is to inflict economic drains on North Dakota law enforcement and court system resources,” he wrote, requesting that that Water Protectors be forced to foot the bill of their arrests and subsequent court appearances. “To date, the State has spent $17 million dollars to address violence, lawlessness, and protection of our citizens and their private property. The belligerent actions of DAPL protesters are done intentionally, and for political communication through social media.”

As arrests were made, a group called the Water Protector Legal Collective made up of lawyers and volunteers from North Dakota and other parts of the country worked diligently to track down protesters and provide jail and legal support short of actual court representation. Few attorneys licensed in North Dakota have offered to help. Only one, Chad Nodland, is working closely with the collective.

”We don’t have a bunch of North Dakota criminal defense attorneys who are sympathetic to Water Protectors, even though they would likely qualify for a public defender,” Angela Biben, a ground coordinator for the group, previously told ThinkProgress.

While the pipeline is currently on hold, Water Protectors fear conviction.

“The vast majority of them have no criminal history whatsoever, and they’re professional people,” Biben said. “We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, college administrators — principled, educated, upstanding members of the community.”

According to the petition filed on Wednesday, there are only 70 barred criminal defense attorneys in North Dakota — many of whom aren’t sympathetic to the protesters.

“Defendants are being put to an impossible choice: go without an attorney, be represented by an attorney too burdened to provide effective assistance, or forgo their right to a speedy trial by having to wait until such time an attorney becomes available,” it says. “None of these choices are acceptable.”