There appears to be a growing list of potential federal laws that could be used to charge antigovernment extremists and militia members who are illegally occupying a wildlife and bird refuge in Oregon. The standoff is now two weeks old, and a resolution doesn’t appear in sight.
U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams, of the District of Oregon, and his assistant prosecutors aren’t talking publicly, but they likely have charging statutes in mind if they get the green light to bring criminal charges from senior Justice Department officials, likely to include U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
The Oregon standoff, and what to do about it, likely is one of the thorniest problems Lynch has encountered since becoming the nation’s chief law enforcement officer last April 27. There has been no official statement from her or the Justice Department on the Burns takeover.
Prosecutors may very well have already obtained secret grand jury indictments and warrants that FBI agents would use when they deem the time is right to make arrests, likely avoiding any violent confrontation.
Then again, federal prosecutors may very well decide not bring criminal charges or make arrests – the same scenario that followed the initial Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014 involving armed antigovernment militias pointing firearms at federal agents.
There are many people, including those in the law enforcement community, who say the “do nothing” approach following that 2014 standoff emboldened Bundy’s three sons, Ammon, Ryan and Mel, to embark on the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters on Jan. 2.
There is no law enforcement perimeter around the refuge, but the FBI is known to have an undercover, plainclothes presence. Media representatives can come and go at will and attend daily Bundy press conferences. The lack of a law enforcement perimeter has allowed occupiers to travel to Burns to renew supplies, receive mail, cash donations and post updates on social media. They’ve even received hate mail, including a box of dildos.
Some Bundy supporters claim on social media they actually are rotating in and out of the headquarters to return home for rest or to watch pro-football playoffs before returning to Malheur.
The occupation and whether to bring criminal charges falls to federal prosecutors in the District of Oregon because the facility, south of Burns on the cold, high desert of Eastern Oregon, is federally owned and managed and staffed by federal employees.
When Ammon Bundy and his band of two armed dozen cohorts walked into the unoccupied headquarters complex, it certainly appeared they initially were committing the crime of federal trespass. They gained entry to an unoccupied federal building without permission and, later, refused a demand from the local sheriff to leave peacefully.
Since the armed occupiers have been in the complex, media accounts document that some of them have illegally used federal computers, accessing employees’ personal information, made illegal use of federal equipment and damaged or destroyed Bureau of Land Management fencing by cutting in down.
That conduct, legal experts say, clearly suggests there is probable cause to charge those individuals with trespassing on federal property, destruction of federal property, unlawful access to federal computers or possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in federal facilities.
Then, there are federal terrorism laws that might be considered.
“The term ‘Federal crime of terrorism’ means an offense that is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct,” says federal law, Section 2332B of Title 18 United States Code.
Some of the occupiers at Malheur have said in media interviews and on social media that they are willing to kill or be killed in furtherance of their agenda.
The terrorism law allows for bringing conspiracy charges and charging “co-conspirators and accessories after the fact.”
Terrorism and terrorism-conspiracy charges can be brought, the law says, if “the victim, or intended victim, is the United States Government, a member of the uniformed services, or any official, officer, employee, or agent of the legislative, executive, or judicial branches, or of any department or agency, of the United States.” The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who operate out of the Burns headquarters complex are both agencies of the U.S. government.
Prosecutors also could elect to use “interference with commerce laws” -- having to merely show that items within the refuge moved at some point in interstate commerce.
Section 1951 of federal law says there is interference with commerce if an individual “in any way or degree obstructs, delays, or affects commerce or the movement of any article or commodity in commerce, by robbery or extortion or attempts or conspires so to do, or commits or threatens physical violence … in furtherance of a plan or purpose.”