SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental activist knowingly broke the law when he bid on parcels of land near Utah's national parks during an oil and gas lease auction, later making public statements that it was an act of civil disobedience and he was prepared to go to prison, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in affirming the man's conviction.
Tim DeChristopher had sought relief from the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, claiming his conviction should be overturned because his actions were a form of civil disobedience intended to protect the environment from an auction he believed to be illegal, among other assertions.
Federal prosecutors said only one thing mattered in the case – DeChristopher knowingly broke the law by fraudulently participating in the 2008 auction.
The appeals court agreed, noting evidence presented at trial last year included DeChristopher's own statements that he was "there to stop that auction."
DeChristopher had claimed he didn't initially intend to bid on the parcels when he ended up winning 14 drilling sites for nearly $1.8 million.
No matter, the appeals court found.
The "very act of filling out the bidder registration form and acquiring a bidder's paddle was consistent with an intent to bid in the auction," the three-judge panel wrote.
They also found that the lower court didn't err when it declined to allow DeChristopher to present evidence he claimed proved the illegality of the entire Bureau of Land Management auction.
The Obama administration later upended the auction held in the final months of President George W. Bush's administration, rescinding many of the parcels and denying them to winning bidders.
"Whether the BLM complied with all applicable environmental regulations in conducting the auction has nothing to do with whether defendant organized a scheme, arrangement or plan to circumvent or defeat" the law, the appeals court wrote.
DeChristopher's attorney said he was troubled, but unsurprised by the ruling.
"One would think in this country that why a person does something would be critically important in the context of a federal criminal case," Ron Yengich said Friday. "But the trial judge and the panel apparently disagree with that."
DeChristopher, who was sentenced last year to two years in federal prison, also claimed the district court imposed a stiffer sentence based on comments he made during trial and after his conviction, in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.
The appeals court, however, found the consideration of his statements at sentencing was proper, given he vowed to "continue to fight."
The court wrote that DeChristopher's sentence wasn't intended as punishment for the content of his statements, but that the lower court judge merely relied on them to determine a sentence length necessary to "promote respect for the law."