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Attorney Question Of The Month

Recently, a large group of armed citizens inserted themselves into a conflict between federal law enforcement agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy at the Bundy Ranch near Las Vegas. This was with encouragement from Bundy. Fortunately, the conflict de-escalated without bloodshed.

We asked our Network affiliated attorneys, “If the federal law enforcement agents had not backed off, but instead had insisted on enforcing the details of the ostensibly lawful order of the court to seize the Bundy cattle grazing on BLM land, what would the legal position of these armed citizens have been if a bloodbath had ensued?” Here are their responses—

Steven M. Harris
Post Office Box 330849, Miami, Florida 33233
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“Lunacy” and “idiocy” appropriately describe the on-scene activity undertaken in support of Mr. Bundy. Attempting to impede the action of federal officials, especially when armed, is very likely to result in a prosecution and term of imprisonment upon conviction. Federal misdemeanor and felony provisions are implicated by involving oneself in such a standoff. I would not be surprised if prosecution is being considered against leaders or promoters of the recent Bundy support activity.

Neither the good intentions of an intervener or Mr. Bundy ultimately being found to be in the right are defenses to federal crimes which punish obstruction of justice, assault on federal officers, and related conspiracy charges. The conduct I observed could have been charged as federal misdemeanors and/or felonies, which punish impeding the execution of federal court orders, obstructing justice, and assault. For the purpose of prosecution, the performance of official duties and existence of a court order control.

There is no “ostensibly correct” but later overruled as incorrect defense. The same is true for officials performing their duties. It is not a defense to an obstruction or assault charge that you were following the constitution and the federal official was not while performing his/her duties.

Finally, as these are general intent crimes, a sincerely held but incorrect belief you were not violating the law is also not a defense.

Bruce Finlay

Attorney at Law
P.O. Box 3, Shelton, WA 98584
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Their legal position would have been very, very bad. The law does not allow citizens to use armed force against the government, even if the government is in the wrong.

Were the government agents to start shooting or injuring people without cause, then the normal rules of self defense would apply. But the government is allowed to use reasonable force to enforce the law and the citizens are not allowed to use force to stop them simply because they disagree with the government’s actions.

Mark Seiden

Mark Seiden, PA
3948 3rd St. S. Ste. 387, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250
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The legal position of the citizens, had they engaged in a gunfight with federal officers/agents is simple: They would have been arrested and aggressively prosecuted in the federal courts for murder and myriad other offenses and their fate would have been decided by a jury. They would be held without bond pending trial and perhaps sentenced to death if convicted. The costs of their defense would have been enormous. They would also be sued in the civil courts by the agent’s families or any wounded surviving agents personally.

In other words, it would have been a disaster and ill advised had they used force to resist.