Two ranchers from eastern Oregon must serve more prison time for committing arson on public rangeland, according to a federal appeals court.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Steven Dwight Hammond and his father, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, must serve the full mandatory minimum 5-year sentences for setting fire to public property.
In 2012, a federal judge in Oregon sentenced the ranchers to much shorter prison terms, finding that 5-year sentences would “shock the conscience” and violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The 9th Circuit has rejected this interpretation, ruling that spending five years behind bars for arson is not “grossly disproportionate” to the serious offense.
“A minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard,” the 9th Circuit said.
A jury convicted Steven Dwight Hammond of setting blazes in 2001 and 2006 on Bureau of Land Management property near their ranch in Diamond, Ore.
He received a 1-year prison term, which he began serving in early January 2013.
Dwight Lincoln Hammond was found guilty of setting the 2006 fire and sentenced to 3 months incarceration, which he began serving at the same time.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said the shorter terms were appropriate because the minimum 5-year sentence was intended to punish arson in populated areas, not “out in the wilderness.”
The Hammonds had argued the mandatory minimum for arson was aimed at terrorists, not ranchers “who burned invasive species that have spread onto the public land.”
The 9th Circuit has disagreed, ruling that Congress has “broad authority” to punish arson regardless of location.
“Even a fire in a remote area has the potential to spread to more populated areas, threaten local property and residents, or endanger the firefighters called to battle the blaze,” the appellate ruling said.
The 9th Circuit also rejected the Hammonds’ claim that the federal prosecutor was not allowed to appeal their sentences.
When the jury convicted the ranchers of arson, the Hammonds agreed to waive their rights to appeal in exchange for concurrent sentences and remaining free prior to sentencing.
They claimed the deal also bound the federal government to accept their sentences, but the 9th Circuit found that the prosecutor had “preserved” the right to challenge the shorter prison terms.