A federal judge on Monday dismissed criminal charges against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who rose to national prominence during his armed standoff with government authorities in 2014 as he challenged their authority over federal land.
The dismissal was the latest defeat for government officials prosecuting Bundy and his relatives in connection with a pair of showdowns with federal authorities, first on Bundy’s home turf and then, two years later, when his sons led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed the case against the rancher, two of his sons and a Montana militiaman, just three weeks after she declared a mistrial in the case against Bundy. Navarro had ruled that government lawyers suppressed key evidence that would have been favorable to the defendants’ case — including suppression of evidence from FBI surveillance cameras recording the Bundy family home and the presence of federal snipers around the property ahead of the standoff, among other omissions.
Her decision Monday freed Bundy and marked a significant victory for the rancher and his supporters. As part of the dispute over the federal government’s land-use policies in the West, the Bundys have argued that the government has been unfairly trampling their rights, although the mistrial and dismissal in Bundy’s case instead focused on how prosecutors handled evidence.
Prosecutors had argued in a court filing that they did not withhold material maliciously, but instead were prompted by “threats to witnesses and the speed at which personal information can spread on social media.” But an attorney for Ammon Bundy, one of the rancher’s sons, decried the government for not turning over “a mother lode of exculpatory information.”
“This was Judge Navarro’s way of making sure that this doesn’t happen in her district ever again,” Dan Hill, the attorney, said in an interview Monday.
Hill said this dismissal appeared to mark the end of the federal cases against Bundy and two of his sons, although the government could appeal. Two of Bundy’s other sons continue to face trial over the 2014 standoff in rural Bunkerville, Nev.
“We respect the court’s ruling and will make a determination about the next appropriate steps,” Dayle Elieson, U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, said in a statement.
After the armed showdown in 2014 — during which government officials backed away from a confrontation over their attempts to round up livestock grazing on federally owned land without a permit — Cliven Bundy remained free and defiant for two years.
Bundy has maintained that the federal government illegitimately holds land that belongs to states and private citizens, and speaking on Monday after leaving the courthouse, he said that “this court has no jurisdiction . . . over this matter.”
“I’ve been a political prisoner for 700 days,” Bundy told reporters after the charges were dismissed. “I’m still a little bit mad.”
Bret Whipple, an attorney for Bundy, called the judge’s decision “an outright victory” and said Bundy, who had refused a conditional release last month on any conditions suggesting he was guilty, was finally going home.
“His wife hasn’t seen him for two years,” Whipple said. “I know she’s keeping him pretty close to her.”
Conservation and environmental advocates quickly railed against the judge’s decision, which they said could embolden others to engage in standoffs against federal authorities who try to protect public land. Michael Blumm, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland and a scholar on environmental and public land laws, said he fears that the acquittals of people involved in the standoffs in Oregon and Nevada could lead to similar confrontations elsewhere.
“That would truly be unfortunate, because these are criminal occupations and, if replicated elsewhere, will likely produce jail time for the vigilantes,” he said.
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said prosecutors “clearly bungled this case and let the [Bundy family] get away with breaking the law.” The Center for Western Priorities, a conservation and advocacy group, said the outcome “should send a chill down the spines of anyone who values our parks, wildlife refuges, and all public lands.”
“At the end of the day, the case was dismissed on a technicality,” Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, said Monday. “Cliven Bundy did not win on the merits, he was not acquitted by a jury.”
J.J. MacNab, an author and researcher who specializes in extremism, said it is likely that the judge’s dismissal could lead others to engage in their own confrontations.
“Cliven Bundy became a figurehead for the movement after the government backed down in April 2014,” MacNab said. “Now, he’s a full-fledged folk hero. He fought the law and he won.”
Bundy was arrested in 2016 in the final days of another armed standoff that involved members of his family and government officials, this one hundreds of miles north of his Nevada ranch.
Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan, led a group that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon for several weeks in early 2016. That occupation eventually dwindled and, in February 2016, the final occupiers surrendered to FBI agents after dramatic negotiations were streamed online.
That same year, Ammon and Ryan Bundy were among those acquitted in the refuge standoff, although they still faced the charges in Nevada that were dismissed Monday. Dan Hill, Ammon Bundy’s attorney, said his client will continue to focus on the argument over land going forward.
“Certainly, he wants the issue of who should control federal lands within state borders to continue to be discussed, and I think he will continue to give talks and seminars on that as he has always done,” Hill said. “That’s an issue near and dear to his heart.”
The 2014 standoff drew intense national attention as well as support or sympathy from Republican politicians. Donald Trump, at the time the host of the NBC series “The Apprentice,” appeared on Fox News Channel and praised Bundy’s “spirit, his spunk.” But Trump noted that there were laws and fees governing the country and suggested that Bundy should “cut a great deal.” Prominent Republican leaders quickly backed away from Bundy at the time after the rancher publicly wondered whether black people were “better off as slaves.”
During the years that followed, there was no attempt to arrest him or collect unpaid grazing fees, and Bundy remained unapologetic.
“They have no jurisdiction or authority, and they have no policing power,” he told The Washington Post in an interview at the time. “They have no business here.”
Not long after that interview, Bundy traveled to Oregon as the wildlife standoff organized by his sons was nearing its end. He was arrested when he arrived in Portland.
In addition to Bundy’s arrest and the charges against his sons and others involved in the Oregon standoff, that saga also produced another legal case.
At the height of the Oregon occupation, authorities pulled over some of the group’s leaders when they traveled outside the refuge. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, a 54-year-old rancher who acted as the group’s spokesman, was fatally shot during the January 2016 encounter. Authorities said the shooting was justified, but last year a special agent with an elite FBI team was indicted and accused of firing shots during that episode and then trying to cover it up.
Sottile reported from Portland, Ore.