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A new pipeline could cut through the upper Midwest by late 2016. It would pump crude oil beneath thousands of acres of farmland and the Mississippi River. The proposed route runs through the Tri-State region, including Van Buren, Lee and Hancock Counties. State regulators are preparing to consider whether to grant the required permits for the project.Before that happens, Tri States Public Radio is taking a closer look at the pipeline and how it will impact local communities, economies, and the environment.

Lee County Sheriff Unhappy with Pipeline Protest Plea Deals

Jason Parrott
Protesters walked past Lee County Sheriff's deputies last fall as they are told they are trespassing and subject to arrest.

Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber is not supporting the decision to dismiss most of the remaining charges against people arrested last fall during multiple protests against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. Weber told Tri States Public Radio that it's difficult to explain to his deputies that their efforts equate to $60 in court costs.

“These deputies worked hard and put up with some extreme conditions,” said Weber. “Get on YouTube and see some of the things these people were doing. More people should have come to jail acting the way they were acting. So the ones that did get charged, I think they should have been held accountable.”

The oil pipeline crosses the Mississippi River near Sandusky in Lee County.

The protests began in late August 2016 when a woman from Des Moines showed up to raise awareness against the pipeline. She lived in a ditch along Mississippi River Road for weeks, with more people joining her as the protests grew.

All told, more than 50 people were arrested during public protests and private acts of what was described as “civil disobedience.” The charges against them included trespassing, interference with criminal acts and disorderly conduct.

Some pleaded guilty early on, but more than 30 people pleaded not guilty and demanded jury trials.

Weber believes this was done on purpose. He said by log-jamming the court system, the odds increased that the charges would be dismissed.

And that is what is underway.

The Lee County Attorney’s Office has been offering to dismiss charges against people who have just one charge against them, such as trespassing. All they have to do is pay the court costs: $60.

So far more than a dozen people have accepted the deal with others considering it.

Weber said it’s difficult to see this happen, knowing what his deputies and other county employees went through because of the protests. For example, he said his office spent $3,639.61 on overtime expenses alone.

“The citizens are complaining to us daily about driving problems, drug problems, thefts, burglaries, those types of things,” said Weber. “I would have much rather spent $3,639.61 on overtime doing directed patrols or putting units out into problem areas to prevent crimes from occurring than dealing with people who came from everywhere to complain about a pipeline.”

Weber said it’s also about the overlapping shifts and the lack of patrols of other parts of the county during the protests. He said a quick walk through his building would reveal plenty of people who disagree with the decision to dismiss the charges.

Assistant County Attorney Clinton Boddicker is handling the pipeline-related cases. He said the decision to offer the plea deals was made based on discussions with former Lee County Attorney Mike Short and his successor, County Attorney Ross Braden.

Boddicker said it would be extremely difficult to try to schedule dozens of jury trials for simple misdemeanors in just a few months.

About a dozen of the protesters participated in pre-trial hearings on March 1. That’s when they learned of the plea deals.

Weber said that’s also when he learned of them, after one of this deputies who was providing extra security outside the courtroom texted him.

“I wasn’t happy with that at all,” said Weber.

Weber took office in January, replacing Sheriff Jim Sholl who retired. Weber said while he does not believe the previous administration did anything wrong regarding the pipeline protests, he believes the situation could have been handled different to avoid it blossoming.

“We would not allow them to camp in the road,” said Weber. “Every person that was trespassing from Day One would be arrested for trespass. We would visit with the courts and ask them to leave them in jail or put a bond on them. That would keep them out of the mix down there.”

Weber said he has spoken with the county attorney’s office about his concerns.

The next group of pipeline protesters is scheduled for pre-trial conferences March 8.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.