Climate activist who targeted Dakota Access Pipeline sentenced to 6 years after terrorism enhancement

(NEW YORK) — A federal judge last week ordered Ruby Montoya, a 32-year-old climate activist, to serve six years in prison for her role in damaging the Dakota Access Pipeline — a sentence that federal prosecutors said they hope will deter others who plan to engage in what they characterized as “domestic terrorism.”

Montoya, who pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiring to damage an energy facility, and 42-year-old activist Jessica Reznicek snuck through security fences, set fire to equipment and used chemicals to burn holes in the pipeline itself from 2016 to 2017, according to their plea agreements.

On Thursday, in addition to Montoya’s prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Ebinger ordered the pair to pay more than $3 million in restitution.

In 2021, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to damage an energy facility, Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison. Notably, both women faced sentencing enhancements under a criminal statute designed to penalize acts of domestic terrorism.

“The sentence imposed today demonstrates that any crime of domestic terrorism will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted by the federal government,” U.S. Attorney Richard D. Westphal said Thursday in a statement responding to Montoya’s sentencing.

The terrorism enhancement traces back to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, after which Congress enacted tougher penalties to deter acts of “intimidation or coercion” aimed at the government or civilian population.

Terrorism sentences have since been applied almost exclusively to defendants with ties to overseas extremist groups like the Islamic State group or al-Qaida or to domestic extremists like Cesar Sayoc, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to mailing pipe bombs to members of Congress.

In the wake of Reznicek’s sentencing last year, critics argued that the law has been too broadly and inconsistently applied — especially to so-called “ecoterrorists” like Reznicek and Montoya.

“I believe 100% that this is an overreach of power,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “And it is absolutely imperative that we put guidelines in place.”

Last month, those concerns attracted renewed attention after a federal judge declined to apply it to one of the most high-profile defendants in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Guy Wesley Reffitt, a 49-year-old Texas militiaman who was convicted in March of obstruction and other crimes, brought a weapon to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and threatened to “physically attack, remove and replace” lawmakers, making him a “quintessential” case for the enhancement, prosecutors wrote in a July sentencing memorandum.

Even so, before handing down an 87-month prison sentence in August, U.S. Judge Dabney Friedrich declined prosecutors’ request to consider Reffitt’s offence as domestic terrorism. In rejecting the enhancement, Friedrich sided with Reffitt’s defense counsel, who accused prosecutors of utilizing the tool as retribution for Reffitt taking the case to trial rather than accepting a plea agreement.

Reznicek appealed her sentencing in the pipeline case, citing the district court’s application of the terrorism sentencing enhancement. In June, a circuit court upheld her prison term.

Attorneys for Montoya did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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