This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Tim DeChristopher does not deserve to serve time in a federal prison.
While U.S. District Judge Dee Benson today can sentence DeChristopher for up to a decade in prison, to do so would be an injustice, to DeChristopher, to the judicial system and to Americans' sense of fair play.
DeChristopher, a 29-year-old former University of Utah student, was convicted in March by a Salt Lake City jury of fraudulently bidding on oil and gas leases in December 2008 when he had no intention of paying for them. DeChristopher, who has said his actions were not planned, bid on a number of parcels, driving up the price on some and ultimately winning more than a dozen others, running up a $1.8 million tab.
His intent, instead, was to focus attention on the frenzy during the last days of the Bush administration to sell off public lands for energy development that never should have been on the auction block. Some of the leases included lands around Utah's national parks that were later ruled in federal court to be inappropriate for oil and gas drilling. The court ruled the sale hijacked by DeChristopher was illegal and many of the parcels were withdrawn from future auctions.
DeChristopher believes federal land managers should be considering the effects of climate change in protecting fragile lands owned by all Americans. However, Benson refused to allow DeChristopher to argue that he was invoking civil disobedience to change what he sees as government negligence. While federal prosecutors aren't seeking the maximum sentence, they object to a federal probation officer's sentencing recommendation that the activist be only mildly punished. They say the fraudulent bids caused losses to other bidders and the Bureau of Land Management.
But how can sending DeChristopher to prison be justified when others who violate laws governing federal lands are given probation or no punishment at all? San Juan County officials illegally removed BLM signs limiting access on federal land simply to make a point. And federal authorities stood by and did nothing as state Rep. Mike Noel encouraged 300 ATV riders to tear up southern Utah's off-limits Paria River.
In yet another example, a bunch of pot hunters who looted ancient relic sites and sold priceless artifacts for profit have received probation for numerous felony convictions.
DeChristopher's action was clearly illegal. But, no matter anyone's opinion about climate change or access to federal lands, the simple fact is, he did no great harm to anyone and is no threat. To give him more than a token sentence would be wrong, if not vindictive.