LAS VEGAS -- A U.S. appeals court refused Thursday to resurrect the criminal case against states’ rights figure Cliven Bundy, family members and others stemming from a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents trying to round up Bundy cattle near the family ranch in Nevada.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco denied prosecutors’ efforts to overturn U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro’s decision to stop a months-long trial in January 2018 for “flagrant” prosecutorial misconduct and her dismissal of the criminal indictment so it could not be re-filed.
“The judgment is affirmed,” Judge Jay Bybee wrote for the three-judge panel that heard oral arguments May 29. The judges found Navarro properly identified violations of “recognized statutory or constitutional” rights, and she had the authority to punish the government “to deter future illegal conduct.”
Bundy, his sons Ryan and Ammon Bundy, and Montana militia leader Ryan Payne had faced life in prison. But they were set free after nearly two years of detention ahead of trial on charges including conspiracy and assaulting federal officers.
Their arrests, with a total of 19 co-defendants in the Nevada case, came in early 2016 after the Bundy brothers and Payne took part in a 41-day anti-government protest occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
The Nevada case stemmed from a years-long dispute between Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management over years of unpaid grazing fees. It grew to involve self-described personal militia members from 11 other states who answered a Bundy family plea for help in March 2014. It became a symbol for advocates of states’ rights, anti-federal policies and the sovereign citizen movement.
“They still say I’m trespassing,” Bundy, 74, said Thursday. He maintains the federal government has no authority and U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over state lands. He acknowledged he continues to refuse to pay fees for his cows grazing in the scrub desert of what is now Gold Butte National Monument.
“These feds came in here and overreached on my land and my ranch," he said. “We’re willing to go through what we’ve had to to defend our rights and the constitution and freedom. I have no contract with the federal government.”
U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich in Las Vegas said he respected the decision; noted the appeals court called it “a difficult and trying case;" and pointed to a footnote in which the appeals court judges said “misjudgments" by prosecutors did not rise to professional misconduct.
The judges said they found “a serious constitutional violation based on choices made by the government."
Ammon Bundy's attorney, Daniel Hill, dubbed the ruling “the Republic in action."
“We have courts so that someone can tell the government when it’s done wrong. Judge Navarro’s order dismissing the case was righteous, and the 9th Circuit agreed," Hill said.
Navarro found “deliberate attempts” by the FBI and prosecutors “to mislead and distort the truth.” She blamed FBI agents for “reckless disregard” of requirements to turn over evidence relating to government snipers and cameras that monitored the Bundy homestead.
The appeals court said pre-standoff “threat assessment" reports prepared by government agents should have been turned over from the FBI to federal prosecutors to defense attorneys.
“These documents could have helped bolster the defense’s claim that the government had engaged in an overmilitarized impound operation that the Bundys claim fueled their fears of being surrounded by snipers," the court said.
“Someone in the government made a conscious choice to withhold these documents. It may not have been a malicious choice, but it also was not a matter of simple oversight.”
Cliven Bundy’s attorney, conservative activist Larry Klayman, said evidence showed government agents “threatened the Bundys’ lives, killed their cattle, assaulted family members and perpetrated tyrannical executive power over them.”
Prosecutors failed to gain full convictions in two earlier trials against six other defendants who acknowledged carrying assault-style weapons during the April 2014 confrontation outside Bunkerville, 80 miles (129 kilometers) northeast of Las Vegas.
None was found guilty of a key conspiracy charge.
Navarro separately dismissed charges against four remaining co-defendants who had been awaiting trial later in 2018.