The new indictment of defiant rancher Cliven Bundy and 18 followers, including four of his sons, has established a new front line in the courts in their ongoing battle with the government.
And defense lawyers think the high-profile case — which stems from the April 2014 armed standoff with law enforcement near the Bundy ranch in Bunkerville — will only be resolved by a trial, where key constitutional issues will play out.
“These people physically stood up to the government, and now they’re likely to stand up to the government again in court,” veteran defense lawyer Chris Rasmussen said Friday.
That means most, if not all, of the 19 defendants won’t be striking plea agreements to end their cases, Rasmussen said.
“They’ve been trying to make a statement about their actions, and I think they want to to put this in front of a jury and hope the jury agrees with them,” defense lawyer Craig Drummond added.
The Bundys consider themselves “political prisoners” and are mounting a nationwide campaign through their websites and social media to raise money for their defense and spread their anti-government message.
Bundy, his sons Ammon, Ryan, David and Melvyn and the other defendants were charged with a string of felonies in connection with the April 12, 2014, standoff. All have been arrested by FBI agents.
More defendants could be charged in an investigation that Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said is not over. Hundreds of anti-government activists from across the country, many of them armed, participated in the nationally watched showdown.
Courtroom battles are on the horizon as the 19 defendants, including the elder Bundy, the man federal prosecutors allege led “massive armed assault” against the federal officers, prepare for their return to Las Vegas to face the criminal charges.
The confrontation aimed to force federal officials to abandon about 400 cattle they had rounded up under court orders, according to the indictment. The Bundy family had been illegally grazing cattle on federal public lands for more than 20 years.
During the height of the standoff, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service rangers were outnumbered 4-to-1 by the Bundys and 270 supporters, and rangers were threatened by snipers perched high above them on bridges, the indictment alleges.
Bundy family members are alleged to have used “deceit and deception” to lure militia and other followers across the country to a call to arms against the federal officers.
Longtime criminal attorney Thomas Pitaro said he expects the defendants to raise what they believe are First Amendment and Second Amendment issues in their defense at trial.
“No matter wherever you stand, there are significant political connotations to this case that will push the boundaries of constitutional protections (free speech and the right to bear arms) that the courts will have to address,” Pitaro said.
The government already has revealed in court documents that much of its evidence against the defendants has come from their own words in cellphone conversations, Internet videos and social media.
Prosecutors have argued that there is no constitutional right that allows someone to use a weapon to prevent law enforcement officers from performing their duties.
And prosecutors have left little doubt they are taking the case seriously.
In announcing the new Las Vegas indictment Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department “will not tolerate the use of threats or force” against federal agents who are simply doing their jobs.
Four prosecutors from the Nevada U.S. attorney’s office, led by First Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre and Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Dickinson, are handling the case.
“The government has to take this seriously. Otherwise we would have anarchy,” said former federal prosecutor Kathleen Bliss, who worked closely with Dickinson on organized crime cases. “It’s a sign of good leadership.”
The price tag for the complicated case is likely to be steep for the taxpayers. Public defenders and court-appointed lawyers will be provided to many of the defendants, and the government will be spending big bucks maintaining extra security and its mass of evidence.
“I think the government will have the highest level of security it can in this case,” Rasmussen said. “I think they’re preparing for the worst, like there could be trouble.”
At the same time, Rasmussen said, “these people have a genuine, good faith belief that the land around their ranch belongs to the citizens and not the federal government.”