Protester plans to fight felony charge

In late June 2012, Madeline ffitch had herself fastened to two barrels at the entrance to a fracking injection well site on Ladd Ridge Road in Alexander Township. She was charged with inducing panic, a fifth-degree felony. Under a currently proposed Senate Bill, ffitch could have been charged with a third-degree felony and fined up to $100,000 for knowingly trespassing onto “critical infrastructure facilities.” In the fall of 2012, ffitch pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of aggravated trespassing and entered into the county Prosecutor’s Office’s diversion program. Photo by Dustin Franz.

Athens environmental activists and the Buckeye Environmental Network are raising the alarm about an Ohio Senate bill that seeks to severely punish people found to have trespassed onto “critical infrastructure facilities” such as oil and gas wells and pipelines.

Specifically, the boards of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) and the Buckeye Environmental Network are warning that Senate Bill 250 could be passed by the Ohio Legislature during the lame-duck session between now and the end of the year. 

“S.B. 250 is being crammed down the throats of Ohio citizens,” local activist Roxanne Groff charged in a statement over the weekend. “There has been little if any effort to inform the public about this bill that would intentionally thwart efforts of individuals and groups, who have as one of few tools to raise their voices and educate others the right to free speech and protest. The very idea of making non-profit and citizen community groups pay outrageous fines and be charged as criminals for support of these constitutional rights is egregious and terrifying.”

Senate Bill 250, introduced by Ohio Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, has been amended since the last time The NEWS reported on it earlier this year, but the intent largely remains the same: It ramps up the criminal penalty for “knowingly” engaging in “aggravated trespassing” on public and private utility infrastructure (previously the bill had made that charge a first-degree felony, whereas it’s currently a first-degree misdemeanor under Ohio law; under the new substitute bill, it’s listed as a third-degree felony).

The bill also proposes to increase the fines for "organizations" found guilty of trespassing, aggravated trespassing and criminal mischief by 10 times the usual amount (and ramps up the crime level for trespassing and criminal mischief as well). So, if the third-degree felony aggravated trespassing charge changes to 10 times the maximum currently allowed for a third-degree felony, that would kick the fine up for an organization found guilty from $10,000 to $100,000). 

Editor's note: We mistakenly reported that people found guilty of these crime provisions would be charged ten times the amount of the usual fine - the bill actually states that "organizations" would face those increased fines. We've corrected this story.

The bill proposes stiffening criminal mischief charges as well (typically a third-degree misdemeanor) relating to a “critical infrastructure piece” up to a first-degree felony, with a similar fine and organization "complicity” structure proposed.

Hoagland, whose Senate District includes most of Athens County, previously has argued that the bill protects people because it safeguards the industries that they rely on in their daily lives.

“I’m talking about (protection for) people like my mother… (and) our families, that need to make sure that their electric is on every day or they’ve got the right fuel for their vehicles or they’ve got good rubber that goes onto their tires,” Hoagland told The NEWS earlier this year.

The ACLU of Ohio in a statement provided by chief lobbyist Gary Daniels earlier this year called the bill “unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional.”

The bill defines those infrastructure pieces as the following, so long as they are “completely enclosed by a fence or other physical barrier… or if clearly marked with signs that are likely to come to the attention of potential intruders.”

• A petroleum or alumina refinery, or steel-making facility.

• An electric generating facility or substation, or other such facilities.

• A chemical, polymer or rubber manufacturing facility.

• A water or wastewater treatment facility, or other similar facilities.

• A natural gas company facility or interstate natural gas pipeline, or similar facilities, including wells and delivery stations.

• Wireline or wireless telecommunications infrastructure.

• A port, trucking terminal, or other freight transportation facility.

• A gas processing plant.

• Dams regulated by state or federal government.

• A crude oil or refined products storage and distribution facility, including pipelines and piping and truck loading or off-loading facilities.

• Any above-ground portion of an oil, gas, hazardous liquid or chemical pipeline, tank or other storage facility.

• Any railroad property.

A hearing is set for Sub. S.B. 250 this Wednesday (Nov. 14) at 10:30 a.m. in the North Hearing Room at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

“Registration to testify and a copy of testimony are due to Sen. Bacon (SD03@ohiosenate.gov) by 9 a.m. Tuesday,” according to a release from ACFAN. “Even short testimony, just stating opposition, is strongly encouraged. We urge people to phone Committee Chair, Senator Bacon (614) 466-8064 and Senate President Larry Obhof (614) 466-7505 (email SD22@ohiosenate.gov) to state opposition and ask that the hearing be postponed, and we encourage people to attend whether or not they testify. To carpool from Athens, RSVP to acfanohio@gmail.com.”

So far, the Senate has only heard proponents’ testimony on the bill, with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council, and Ohio Rural Water Association, among others, in favor.

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