Cliven Bundy walks for involvement in 2014 standoff

Judge dismisses case for ‘flagrant misconduct’ after prosecutors and FBI withheld evidence.

 

On Jan. 8, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed all charges against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, sons Ammon and Ryan, and Montana militiaman Ryan Payne due to misconduct by prosecutors. This is the worst blow yet to prosecutors in a high-profile case that has involved three trials since early 2017 and has captured public attention across the nation. The dismissal raises major questions about the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to enforce regulations on the public land it manages, and represents a serious challenge to Western conservationists who want to see public lands preserved in accordance with federal environmental laws.

The case stemmed from a tense 2014 standoff near the Bundys’ ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The Bundy family, along with hundreds of supporters, including militia members, faced off against BLM and National Park Service officers attempting to impound the family’s illegally grazing cattle. The conflict has come to symbolize age-old Western tensions over public land management, as well as a nationwide proliferation of self-styled militia groups.

For the Bundys and their supporters, the dismissal is an unprecedented victory in their decades-long stand against federal authority in favor of states’ rights. “My defense is a 15-second defense,” Cliven Bundy said Monday at the federal courthouse. “I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land, and I have no contract with the federal government.” Bundy cattle graze on BLM and National Park Service lands, but the rancher believes that the federal government cannot legally own or administer public lands.

Cliven Bundy walks out of federal court with his wife, Carol, after a judge dismissed criminal charges against him and his sons. The Bundys were accused of leading an armed uprising against federal authorities in 2014.
K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

“I’ve put up with this court as a political prisoner for two years,” Bundy said as he left the courthouse, alongside his wife, Carol, and attorney, Bret Whipple. Bundy and his co-defendants had been held in custody since their arrests in February 2016. The men faced a raft of charges including conspiracy against the United States and threatening federal officers, for their parts in the 2014 confrontation.

The dismissal by Judge Gloria Navarro comes after she ruled a mistrial on Dec. 20, just five weeks into what was expected to be a four-month-long trial, citing revelations that prosecutors and FBI withheld evidence that could have helped the defense prove its case. “The court finds there has been flagrant prosecutorial misconduct,” Navarro said on Monday to a courtroom packed with reporters, curious onlookers, members of the Bundy family and their wider support network. Navarro also said that “a universal sense of justice has been violated,” as a result of the prosecutors’ failure to provide relevant evidence by certain deadlines, or at all.

Navarro cited reports from the FBI, BLM and other federal agencies assessing just how much of a threat the Bundys might pose to law enforcement in the event that the government tried to impound their livestock. U.S. attorneys failed to provide most of these reports to the defense team, which the judge said could have helped defendants prove their case, to show the Bundys were not in fact a threat to federal employees.

In court on Monday, Judge Navarro also pointed to the government’s failure to provide information related to a FBI surveillance camera placed on public land near the Bundy residence for two days in April 2014, as part of “grossly shocking” and “egregious” prosecutorial conduct.

Cliven Bundy shortly after his case was dismissed at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, responding to a question about the Bureau of Land Management’s role in the American West. /Video by Tay Wiles/High Country News

The three Bundy defendants spoke to reporters amidst dozens of onlookers outside the federal courthouse Monday morning. When asked whether another standoff would happen if the BLM again attempted to impound the family’s cattle that are still grazing federal land without the required permit, Ammon Bundy said: “I don’t know, you’d have to ask my dad. But I’m sure he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

In response to the dismissal, Mike Ford, Nevada’s former deputy state director of the Bureau of Land Management, said in an email: “Regrettably, there is culpability to be shared, but many of the good people of the BLM, and others, will now be painted with the same brush of bad behavior based upon the lack of common sense, failed leadership, and irresponsible actions of a few perpetrated by Special Agent Dan Love.” Love led the failed 2014 impoundment and is a controversial figure in the West, known for his aggressive law enforcement tactics. Love was also the subject of federal investigations into alleged misconduct and was fired from the agency last year.

It is not yet clear whether the trial of four more defendants in the larger Bunkerville standoff case, including two more of Cliven’s sons, Mel and Dave Bundy, will continue as planned. United States Attorney Dayle Elieson for the District of Nevada released the following statement: “We respect the Court’s ruling and will make a determination about the next appropriate steps.”

Whipple said the effect that Monday’s dismissal will have on that forthcoming trial “is going to be nothing but positive.” The attorney, whose family has been ranching cattle for four generations in Nevada, added: “It’s going to be interesting to see what the U.S. Attorney’s Office does at this point.”

Tay Wiles is an associate editor at High Country News and can be reached at [email protected]