Arson sentences appealed
Government says prison stays would be too short
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The federal government has appealed the prison sentences of two ranchers in Eastern Oregon who were convicted of committing arson on public lands earlier this year.
The ranchers were sentenced to much shorter prison terms than sought by the government, which is now challenging the sentences before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Steven Dwight Hammond, 43, is scheduled to turn himself in to federal authorities in early January to begin serving a year and a day behind bars.
His father, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, will begin serving a three-month sentence at the same time.
The two men were also sentenced to three years of probation following their release.
The U.S. Attorney's Office had asked for the ranchers to serve minimum mandatory prison sentences of five years, but a federal judge found that imposing that much time would be unconstitutional.
During the sentencing on Oct. 30, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said the mandatory minimum sentences in this case would "shock the conscience" and would be "grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here."
Hogan said he did not believe Congress intended for the mandatory five-year prison term to apply to setting fires "out in the wilderness," as opposed to more populated areas like Los Angeles.
Attorneys for the defendants had argued that the federal law that established the mandatory minimum sentence was focused on terrorist acts that used "violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims."
The law was not supposed to apply to a "rancher who burned invasive species that have spread on to the public land," the defendants said in a court filing.
Both Hammonds were convicted of setting a fire in 2001 and Steven Hammond, the son, was also found guilty of another arson in 2006. The blazes occurred near their Diamond, Ore., ranch.
The ranchers had a "long-running debate and disagreement" with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management about using fire to control juniper and other invasive species on public land where they grazed cattle, according to a court document filed by their attorneys.
During the sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni argued that the prison sentences sought by the government were not barred by the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
"I have found no Supreme Court authority or even appellate court authority that says that a mandatory five-year sentence is a cruel and unusual sentence," Papagni said.
In a court filing, Papagni said the mandatory minimum sentence should apply because the "defendants have provided no assistance to the government and, in fact, they have demonstrated no remorse for their offense."
The government and the Hammonds are scheduled to submit briefs outlining their arguments to the court of appeals through March of next year.
The Hammonds also face a pending civil case in which the government seeks compensation for damages and firefighting costs, as well as an order barring the ranchers from entering or using public lands.