90 Miles From Tyranny : This Vet Imprisoned for Digging Ponds on His Land Died. Now His Widow Continues the Fight.

Monday, May 20, 2019

This Vet Imprisoned for Digging Ponds on His Land Died. Now His Widow Continues the Fight.

The name of a Navy veteran may be cleared after he was convicted, fined, and imprisoned for digging ponds in a wooded area near his Montana home, to supply water in case of fire.

The Supreme Court has vacated a lower court ruling against Joe Robertson, who was sent to federal prison and ordered to pay $130,000 in restitution through deductions from his Social Security checks.

Any definitive legal victory for Robertson would be posthumous, since he died March 18 at age 80.

But his lawyers describe the Supreme Court’s action as a “big win” for Robertson’s widow, Carrie, who plans to carry on the fight.

President Barack Obama’s Justice Department had prosecuted Robertson for digging in “navigable waters” without a permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling against Robertson in November 2017 and denied him a rehearing in July 2018.

The Navy veteran’s initial trial at the district court level resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial. He then was convicted after a second district court trial.

Robertson was 78 when he was sentenced in 2016; he completed his 18 months behind bars in late 2017. At the time of his death, he was supposed to be on parole for another 20 months.

In November, he had petitioned the Supreme Court to review his case.

Prior to his conviction, Robertson operated a business that supplied water trucks to Montana firefighters. Because he himself resided in a “fire-prone landscape,” he was concerned for his safety and that of his property, according to his petition to the Supreme Court.

In 2013 and 2014, Robertson had dug a series of ponds close to an unnamed channel near his home, to store water in case of fire. The foot-wide, foot-deep channel carried the equivalent of two to three garden hoses of water flow, his petition explains.

Robertson argued that he didn’t violate the Clean Water Act because digging the ponds did not discharge any soil into “navigable waters,” since the water flow in the channel didn’t amount to that. The ponds are more than 40 miles away from “the nearest actual navigable water body,” the Jefferson River, the petition says.

On April 15, the Supreme Court vacated the 9th Circuit ruling in response to Robertson’s petition and said his widow, Carrie, could pursue his case and represent his estate. The high court also ordered the 9th Circuit to determine whether the estate may continue to contest the $130,000 in restitution.

Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit, public interest law firm specializing in property rights, represented Robertson in his legal dispute with federal officials.

Tony Francois, a senior attorney with the firm, told The...

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