Case against pipeline protester will go to trial, as police tactics questioned and lawyer signals defense strategyMore Info
Great Barrington — A pipeline protester who faces serious charges of assaulting state troopers insists he is innocent and will fight the charges, his lawyer said today in Southern Berkshire District Court.
Jacob Renner, a farmer from Sharon, Connecticut, stands charged with two criminal counts of assault and battery on a police officer, trespassing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. He is known as an indigenous water protector, so called because water protecters travel the country to fight against pipeline projects that hinder access to water such as the Standing Rock, a Native American reservation in North Dakota where there were protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline during which police attacked peaceful protesters.
The Renner case is seen as significant because, out of all the protesters arrested this year in the Berkshires, he is the only one whose charges were not either dropped or downgraded to civil infractions.
Renner, 25, was among the nearly 100 arrested over the last year for protesting Kinder Morgan’s ongoing operations to clear almost 30 acres of the publicly owned Otis State Forest in Sandisfield to make room for a controversial natural gas pipeline expansion that many of its detractors insist is both unnecessary and environmentally destructive.
Renner and his attorney, Joseph Zlatnik, appeared before Judge Paul Vrabel at a pre-trial hearing and filed a discovery motion seeking, among other things, radio transmissions between state police and the private security company hired by the Tennessee Gas Company on Nov. 1, 2017, the day Renner was arrested. Zlatnik is also asking for the state police policy on the use of the Taser, an electroshock weapon used to subdue highly agitated suspects, including Renner.
Zlatnik, a private attorney who is representing Renner free of charge, said he is wary of the state police account of what transpired when troopers attempted to arrest his client for trespassing. Click here to read the summary of the incident on the state police news blog.
In a press gaggle in the hallway after Vrabel granted his discovery motion, Zlatnik gave a hint of what his defense strategy will be and elaborated on several issues, including the use of the Taser.
“My contention at this point is–and I haven’t seen the [Taser] policy yet so I can’t say this in any definitive sense–but from having observed a video of this, makes me think the Taser use was not only unjustified … but also egregious,” Zlatnik said.
The Sugar Shack Alliance, an anti-fossil fuel activist group that has organized most of the protests, said in a statement before Thursday’s hearing that Renner’s charges were not dropped or downgraded because the police were trying to protect themselves.
“We believe the reason Jake’s case is being treated differently from all the other arrests is because the police officers’ behavior would be very difficult to defend if the charges were reduced,” said Sugar Shack legal liaison Vivienne Simon, herself an attorney. “And they could possibly leave themselves open to liability. These charges should be dropped and the police involved should be investigated for their behavior.”
But the state police deny any such motive. Spokesman David Procopio told the Edge: “We arrested Jacob Renner because he broke the law by trespassing onto property clearly marked ‘no trespassing,’ refused to comply with orders to remove his hands from his pockets, and shoved and struggled with troopers.
“The offenses he committed are more serious than the charges against other demonstrators, which were generally either disorderly conduct or trespassing,” Procopio continued. “His arrest was warranted and the actions of the troopers were entirely appropriate.”
But Simon and Zlatnik begged to differ. Simon said Renner was standing peacefully on South Beech Plain Road “committing no crime–when he was surrounded by three police officers, who eventually threw him to the ground and shot electricity through his body while police officers held him down. He still has scars on his back. It’s outrageous.”
Procopio also complied with an Edge request for a copy of the state police policy on the use of Electronic Control Weapons, as Tasers are known in police policy manuals. Click here to read it.
The policy says Tasers are much like other weapons at the disposal of state police in the sense that use of such force must be “objectively reasonable.” One situation in which the use of a taser is permitted is “When an individual flees in order to avoid arrest or detention in circumstances where the [trooper] would pursue on foot and physically effect the arrest or detention.”
By his lawyer’s own admission, Renner fled and resisted arrest. But they say the Taser was used after Renner had already been subdued. The state police policy seems to leave some wiggle room in this situation:
“In limited situations, [the Taser] may be used on a handcuffed or secured prisoner if an individual exhibits overtly assaultive, self-destructive, or violently resistive behavior that cannot reasonably be controlled by other readily available means.”
But Zlatnik is also looking at other angles, as well. One of the protesters caught part of Renner’s arrest on video using a cell phone. (See video below from Renner’s Facebook page.)
“They immediately came at me and surrounded me as if I were a threat,” Renner wrote in a note accompanying the video. “After hearing the commanding officer say, ‘Get him!” I became afraid for my life and decided to run. Because I acted in my own defense and fled after being threatened, I am now determined to prove my innocence.”
Renner said the three troopers, who can be seen chasing and subduing him on the video, attempted to apply the Taser on him three times. The first charge, he said, “sent 50,000 volts of electricity into my body, through my spine, and into my brain.” Before and after being subdued, Renner can be heard repeatedly saying, “I didn’t do anything.”
On the next attempt, the gun would not carry a charge through the wires, “so the officer decides to press the broken wires into my back while I’m being subdued. Upon pressure on my back, the charge coursed through my body at a longer rate and a less consistent voltage,” Renner said.
During his impromptu session with reporters, Zlatnik acknowledged that, “My impression from the video is it tells me this is going to be a challenging trial, without a doubt. This is not going to be a walk in the park, but the video does not include the initial interaction between him and the police.”
Zlatnik said he has heard from several witnesses that the police did not tell Renner that he was under arrest, but simply approached him, and one trooper shouted for the other troopers to “get him” and a pursuit on foot ensued.
“He panicked because he didn’t understand what was going on and that why he was running,” Zlatnik explained. “This is what witnesses have told me.”
One contention of the state police is that Renner “shoulder-checked” a trooper but, based on viewing the video, Zlatnik is not convinced that Renner was in a position to lower his shoulder and use it as a weapon against the trooper.
To be clear, Zlatnik said, he is not making excuses for his client resisting an arrest, nor would a violation of police policy necessarily exonerate Renner. But Zlatnik is convinced that, if he can show that the police used excessive force, Renner would be justified in acting in self-defense. In addition, Zlatnik said police officers in Massachusetts cannot arrest someone for trespassing unless they actually saw the suspect trespassing, which did not occur in Renner’s case.
“It also says something about the bias of the police officers and the fact that the police did not report that they [used the Taser] at point-blank range,” Zlatnik said of the police report of the incident.
Zlatnik and Renner appeared afterwards on the steps of the courthouse, where Sugar Shack spokesman Erik Burcroff read Simon’s statement. See video below:
Meanwhile, the search for facts continues. Vrabel set the date for the resumption of Renner’s pre-trial hearing for Monday, Feb. 12.
Sugar Shack and other groups had organized a series of protests in the Otis State Forest earlier this year. All were peaceful until this fall when Renner was arrested and a young protester, Karla Colon-Aponte, was charged with assault and battery on a police officer after a confrontation in the state forest with a trooper, who violently shoved Colon-Aponte to the ground and pinned her there with his knee on her back. However, unlike Renner’s case, Colon-Aponte’s assault charge was dismissed by Vrabel.
See video below of Colon-Aponte’s Oct. 25, 2017, encounter with state police: