Defense attorneys for wildlife refuge occupiers want federal conspiracy charge tossed

This photo provided by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016, shows Ammon Bundy, one of the members of an armed group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as part of a dispute over public lands in the Western U.S. Bundy and several others were arrested on Tuesday, Jan. 26, prompting gunfire and leaving one man dead during a traffic stop along a highway in Oregon's frozen high country. (Multnomah County Sheriff via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The group of occupiers who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days at the beginning of this year took a big step toward their upcoming trial on Monday.

Judge Anna Brown heard arguments from both sides about whether the protesters' conduct at the refuge is protected by the law or criminal. One issue is whether the group's First Amendment rights to assemble and practice free speech are protected or considered criminal because some of the protesters allegedly were illegally carrying weapons and allegedly made threats and intimidated some of the federal employees who work at the refuge.

The government's position is that the case is clear-cut: the protesters were involved in a conspiracy to overtake the refuge and send a message to the Bureau of Land Management that the government had overstepped its role in ranch land management. U.S Attorney Ethan Knight argued that means the protesters didn't need to all have the same level of involvement in the occupation, they merely had to agree to the same agenda.

The defense attorneys' position is that the case is too vague. They argued that the conspiracy charge should be dropped because the definitions the government uses for "intent," "threaten," and "force" are broad enough that they allow the government to arbitrarily decide the case as it goes on. Defense attorneys want the judge to drop the charge or force prosecutors to come up with specific definitions of those terms that both sides agree on.

Federal defender Amy Baggio told Judge Brown that the defense attorneys want her to force prosecutors to identify which defendants are being accused of which specific acts. Baggio called the indictment too broad, and said the 45,000 pages of discovery and more than two dozen defendants on trial at once puts all of the defendants at a huge disadvantage.

Lewis and Clark Professor of Law Tung Yin said, "If the court were to agree with the defense then it would be basically the equivalent of a home run because it would mean the game is over for now," when asked what it will mean if the judge sides with the defense.

The judge told the defendants and attorneys for both sides that she would issue written rulings on the motions "as soon as possible."

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