In October, 2016, a group of five activists, dubbed the "Valve Turners," simultaneously shut off the valves to crude oil pipelines in Washington, Montana, Minnesota and North Dakota. The act temporarily halted the flow of tar sands from Canada to the U.S.
The group argued that their civil disobedience was a "necessary defense" against climate change.
Leonard Higgins, a 66-year-old Oregon retiree, was tried in Montana court on charges of criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass—which together carried the potential of a 10-year jail sentence and up to $50,000 fine—for turning an emergency shutoff valve to a pipeline in Coal Banks Landing.
Today, the Chouteau County District Court in Fort Benton, Montana sentenced Higgins to pay $3,755.47 in restitution and deferred a three-year prison sentence—meaning he will serve no jail time.
Like fellow valve turner and Oregonian Ken Ward, Higgins' defense lawyers attempted to argue to have charges thrown out on the grounds that trespassing and interfering with the pipelines were necessary in order to halt climate change.
While the judges in both cases did not accept the defense argument, the men managed to evade jail time.
Ward, who was tried in Skagit County, was charged three felonies and one misdemeanor, but got off with two days in jail and 30 days of community service after his trial ended in a hung jury.
In North Dakota, Seattle-native Michael Foster is the only Valve Turner who is currently serving jail time. He got a year in prison for shutting off a valve in Grand Forks.
In a Minnesota court, two of the five climate activists just had their necessity defense granted—an historic first for a U.S. climate case.
The Civil Liberties Defense Center is currently working to appeal the cases of other valve-turners who were not granted necessity defense.
"The facts of climate science, the tragic impacts of changes already under way, and the negligence of government in responding drove me across the line from a public employee to someone who would consider civil disobedience," Higgins said in court today. "I look forward to appealing to the court for my sixth Amendment right of a full defense to present my case again with the full scope of information available."