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Court Affirms Tim DeChristopher's Oil Bidding Conviction

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 14, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified today that you don't have to be part of a group to organize or participate in a scheme. Let us explain.

Tim DeChristopher entered a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2008, by representing he was a bidder. His purpose was to disrupt the auction and call attention to the potential environmental harms of drilling on the leases. He proceeded to drive up the auction prices as Bidder Number 70 and ultimately won almost $1.8 million in bids, for which he was unable to pay.

He was ultimately convicted for this "scheme."

At trial, DeChristopher's legal team wanted to argue that he registered as Bidder Number 70 to right a wrong and was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: bidding with false intentions or standing by while an environmental wrong occurred. The trial judge, however, strictly limited defense testimony on federal energy policies and climate change to avoid turning the courtroom into a debate over environmental policy.

A jury convicted DeChristopher of interfering with the provisions of Chapter 3A of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act, and making a false statement or representation. Last year, he was sentenced to two years in prison and three years of probation, and ordered to pay $10,000 in fines.

DeChristopher appealed, claiming that he had no choice but to disrupt the auction because it was an illegal proceeding, and that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction because the law under which he was charged required proof of a group activity.

During oral arguments, a Tenth Circuit panel seemed skeptical of his necessity defense, and suggested that he could have filed a lawsuit to enjoin the auction or protested the auction instead. The appellate court's skepticism did not dissipate in the ensuing months. Friday, the Tenth Circuit affirmed DeChristopher's conviction.

In addition to rejecting DeChristopher's necessity defense, the court found that the organizing/scheming law did not require participation in group activity, and the jury instructions did not require that be proven, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

DeChristopher's conviction isn't really surprising from a practical standpoint: If the court had overturned DeChristopher's conviction, wouldn't oil and gas auctions be flooded with copycats?

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