Case against pipeline protester will go to trial, as police tactics questioned and lawyer signals defense strategy

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By Thursday, Jan 11 News  11 Comments
Terry Cowgill
Erik Burcroff, a member of the Sugar Shack Alliance, reads a statement from Sugar Shack's Vivienne Simon. At left are defendant Jacob Renner and his attorney, Joseph Zlatnik.

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.

Jacob Renner, right, and his attorney Joseph Zlatnik, talk to reporters outside the courtroom. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.”

Renner acknowledges a well-wisher outside the courtroom. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

Renner attorney Joseph Zlatnik speaks with the news media. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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:


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11 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Marc says:

    Seriously? It took 3 police officers to take down a 25 year old boy from the Berkshires who was trespassing? They’re acting like he killed someone. And using taser equipment they don’t even know how to operate. Or maybe they do and wanted to hurt him. Ridiculous

    1. Laura says:

      a 25 year old is a man (not a boy or kid) that should take responsibility for his actions. At his age he should have known better not to run from the police when they told him to stop. He is also not from the “Berkshires” he is from Sharon CT which is not considered the Berkshires.

      1. Terry Cowgill says:

        Where did the story say Renner is “from the Berkshires?”

      2. Marc says:

        Seems you know a lot Laura. Perhaps you have a personal interest in this story. And excuse me for saying he’s FROM the Berkshires. It did HAPPEN here in the Berkshires. And if I heard “let’s get him”. I’m pretty sure I’d run also. And no remarks on how they used the taser and lack of knowledge of using equipment they SHOULD know how to use. He is a boy. Being “taken” down by 3 men cops.

  2. Sasha says:

    Total abuse of power. These guys look like complete bullies picking on the little. Gross these guys should be on trial not this poor kid

  3. peter greer says:

    This is the underbelly of the beast. Its not pretty and it cuts against our belief that this is a democracy with due process. Thankfully it was captured on camera and the injuries were not even more severe. The ability of natural gas cos to use a 1930s act to confiscate private land is the source of the ugly theater that has been created here and it needs to be changed. It no longer serves any public interest , and our politicians need to stand up and have the courage and integrity that the protesters do . They bear responsibility for the clashes .

  4. Jim Johnston says:

    How about lets not run from and/or resist the police? There’s a reason he was the only protester out of the dozens who were arrested that got tased.

  5. Matt says:

    He clearly is not resisting and it absolutely does not take three large men and a taser to do this job. They look like bullies and not like they are there to protect and serve .

    1. Casey says:

      I find it very interesting that the entire incident was NOT included in the video. The beginning, may be the IMPORTANT part where he had been asked several times by police to remove his hands from his pockets and he refused. This is a serious threat to any police officer as many are shot daily. You don’t have to believe me, turn on the news, read the paper. So instead of complying he turned and ran knocking into officers.
      Thus a chase. Now, we have the police report version, and your half video version. As is so common on these “home videos” they show you only what they want you to see. The police report is attached in the article so you can read it also.
      So you say he is only a “boy?” Sorry people he is over 18 he is a MAN. Might behave differently. See how he is tried in a court of law. Can he purchase alcohol? Boys can’t.

  6. Melione says:

    Video where they tase The adult male is awful but the second video These full grown men slam a small girl to the ground for saying something as she is walking away with her back turned to them. This is Disgusting enough but then add the fact that they charge her with assault and battery of a police officer. It’s horrible these men do not make me feel safe.

  7. Laura says:

    Terry I was replying to Marc’s comments…..he said he was from the Berkshires. The article states that he lives in Sharon CT.

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