What Do You Know About the Federal Overreach and Abuse Occurring in the Hammond Family Ranching Case in Central Oregon?

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According to the Western Livestock Journal, Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond are going back to prison for two range fires they started years ago on their private land that spread onto federal land. Between the two of them, this father and son have already served one year, three months and a day in prison for the fires. But last Wednesday, convicted as National Arson Terrorists, they were resentenced to serve a total of five years each. They have until Jan. 4 to selfsurrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The two men, along with their family, run a cattle operation together in Harney County, OR. In 2012, they admitted to having started the two fires. One was a prescribed fire in 2001, intended to burn off invasive species. It spread to 139 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The other, started in 2006, was a back-burn designed to protect the Hammonds’ private winter range from lightning fires that were raging on adjacent federal land. That fire spread onto one acre of BLM land.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 6.34.24 PMYears later, in 2011, the administrative branch of the U.S. pressed charges for the fires, citing endangerment of human lives and damage to federal property. However, in 2012, the judiciary branch—the U.S. District Court for Oregon— found that no one had been endangered by the fires, and that the fires had caused minimal damage, if any. In fact, the judge and jury found the fire had arguably increased the value of the land for grazing.

Yet the two men had admitted to having started the fires—and thus admitted guilt. According to a family member, Dwight, then 72, and Steven, then 43, were exhausted after several weeks of trial. They were ready to end it, and there appeared to be no option but prison time; the administration was bringing charges against them under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That Act requires prison time for violators.

However, the judge overseeing the trial in 2012, District Court Judge Michael Hogan, decided that the five-year mandatory minimum sentence imposed by the Anti-terrorism Act was excessive— a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. That Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required…nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” To call for five years’ imprisonment, Judge Hogan said, “would result in a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here…”

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But the administration was not satisfied with Judge Hogan’s sentencing. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the sentence, insisting that Dwight and Steven spend a minimum of five years apiece in prison, as mandated by the Anti-terrorism Act. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and remanded the decision back to the U.S. District Court for Oregon.

Back at the district court level, Chief Judge Ann Aiken followed the letter of the law; Dwight and Steven Hammond will go back to prison.

“It was gut-wrenching,” said Jerome Rosa of Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA), who went to last Wednesday’s hearing. “The Department of Justice brought up items that Hammonds had been acquitted for already. The government’s attorney talked to the judge as though the 2012 trial had never happened.”

Digging up bones

Indeed, a look at the Department of Justice’s press release from last Wednesday reveals that the administration had brought before Judge Aiken a litany of items that had already been heard and dismissed by Judge Hogan’s court.

“This hearing was supposed to be a resentencing based on the findings from 2012,” Rosa explained, “not a reopening of the case and all the evidence that has already been weighed and decided on. That would be double jeopardy.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 6.27.43 PMYet the U.S. attorney who represented the administration’s Department of Justice before Judge Aiken brought up multiple items that had already been weighed and saw a ruling in the 2012 trial. For example, the U.S. attorney claimed the Hammonds had started the 2001 fire to cover up that they had “illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property.”

However, the Hammonds and several witnesses had presented substantial evidence in the 2012 trial that these allegations were false. Evidence was produced that Steven first called the BLM to ensure burning was permitted, and had then set the fires under a long-standing agreement between Hammonds and the BLM range conservationist to burn off invasive species on that section.

The administration also made the claim that Congress intended to deter “those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place firefighters and others in jeopardy” by imposing the five-year mandatory prison sentence. But Judge Hogan and the jury had determined in 2012 that lives were not endangered by the fires.

Despite the accusations from the Department of Justice, Judge Aiken stuck to what the Ninth Circuit Court had said was legally required: She extended Dwight and Steven’s sentences to a total of five years apiece. A Hammond family contact told us they will likely seek clemency (presidential pardon), but that that process, unless expedited, could take nearly as long as the prison sentence itself.

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Fight’s still on for grazing rights

Meanwhile, the family still hopes to get its BLM grazing permit back so it can sustain its cattle operation while Dwight and Steven serve their time. BLM has denied Hammonds their permits for two years now, causing an upheaval of normal operations. In the meantime, as part of a separate settlement agreement with BLM, the family has agreed to pay $400,000 in “damages.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 6.28.46 PMAt the request of the Hammonds, the OCA and Public Lands Council are in talks with BLM, hoping to get the family’s permit back.

“This has been extremely difficult,” said Rosa. “We’ve been in constant contact with Hammonds and are working on a state and federal level to try to be supportive. It’s important to our members that we maintain a working relationship with BLM. We hope to come up with something positive for Hammonds in the midst of all this devastation.”

Bob Skinner of Public Lands Council, who has also been deeply involved in negotiations, said PLC and OCA were “acting on the family’s wishes” that negotiations continue, but that watching this case unfold has been very hard.

“It just doesn’t match up with what we believe the United States of America to be,” he said in a phone interview. He told WLJ that PLC and OCA have also been talking with legislators about how to reform the Anti-terrorism Act so that this doesn’t happen again— and how the Hammonds may possibly be able to get an expedited presidential pardon.

Exposing the story

The Oregon Farm Bureau, meanwhile, has moved on to a new strategy. They have left the negotiations table and started a campaign to raise public awareness. They are circulating a petition, found at Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 6.47.37 PMwww.savethehammonds.com. “Tell Department of Justice: Don’t brand hardworking ranchers as terrorists,” states the website. “End this cruel and unusual punishment. It’s unjust, unfair, and un-American.” At print time, the petition had been up for about a week and already had over 3,100 signatures of individuals from 45 states.

“We understand Dwight and Steve broke the law,” said Oregon Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Dave Dillon in a phone interview. “But the federal government appears to be acting out of vindictiveness here, not justice.”

Dillon pointed out that if federal agencies can treat these men in this manner, other farmers and ranchers—and all Americans, for that matter—should feel threatened.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 5.53.20 AM“The government seems to be making an example of anyone who will attempt to stand up to them. What does that say for our other producers who are attempting to work with the federal agencies?” Dillon said Oregon Farm Bureau is now working in support of clemency for the Hammonds. In addition, he said, they’ll be delving into government documents via Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover “BLM hypocrisy and mismanagement in its own fire policies and practices.”

“In this case, there’s a lot of story to tell,” Dillon said, “and we’re going to do our best to expose it.” — Theodora Johnson, WLJ Correspondent

Editor’s Note:  For an even more thorough treatment of the full Hammond back-story, and underlying situation, please check-out this article:  Enemies of the State, in Range Magazine, Spring 2013.