Former Corvallis resident Leonard Higgins won’t do any time behind bars for participating in the “valve turner” protests.
Higgins, 66, could have faced up to 10 years in prison for his role in the coordinated climate change action, which briefly shut down five transnational oil pipelines in four U.S. states on Oct. 11, 2016.
Instead, Montana District Court Judge Daniel Boucher on Tuesday handed down a three-year deferred sentence with probation. He also ordered Higgins to pay $3,755.47 in restitution for damage caused when he broke into a fenced enclosure in a remote area near the town of Coal Banks Landing and closed an emergency shutoff valve on the Spectra Express pipeline.
Higgins was convicted of felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor trespassing, but because the sentence was deferred, he could be eligible to have the convictions expunged from his record.
Reached by phone shortly after his sentence was handed down, Higgins said he was surprised and a little bewildered to find himself still a free man.
“I was very relieved,” he said. “I showed up to court today with only the things I was planning to take into jail with me — a little money for the commissary, my driver’s license and my insurance card.”
Four other valve turners were charged with similar crimes in Washington, Minnesota and North Dakota. All the protesters waited to be arrested after closing the pipeline shutoff valves and requested jury trials as a way of calling attention to the role of fossil fuels in climate change, which they see as a global crisis.
Their legal strategy was to present a necessity defense, arguing that their criminal actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm — namely, irreversible damage to the planet caused by a rapidly warming climate. That line of argument was rejected by judges in three of the cases, although it could still be allowed in two others (see sidebar with this story).
Higgins said he will seek permission to serve his probation back home in Oregon, but this may not be the last he sees of a Montana courtroom.
His attorneys are planning to file two appeals, one on the grounds that the restitution was set too high and the other arguing that he should be allowed to present a necessity defense.
Either appeal, if successful, would result in a new trial, although Montana law would protect Higgins from receiving a harsher sentence.
“We can’t get a worse result, but we can get a better result,” said lead attorney Herman Watson IV, who practices with the Watson Law Office in Bozeman, Montana.
But that’s not really the point, he added. The main objective is to give Higgins another chance to persuade a jury of the imminent dangers posed by climate change.
“Leonard’s an activist,” Watson said. “He puts his liberty at risk for a cause he believes in. The longer this goes on, the more people he’ll reach — and that’s really his goal.”
Higgins said he had no regrets about his actions, even though they could have landed him in prison, and he will continue to devote himself to climate change activism.
“I did what I did to do everything I can to try and guarantee that my kid and grandkids — and other people’s kids and grandkids — will have a livable future,” he said.
“To fight for what we love, we have to do whatever we can.”