Federal court halts S.D. riot-boosting laws; removes Penn. Co. sheriff from case

Rapid City, S.D. — A federal judge in Rapid City has ruled in favor of pipeline protesters and issued a preliminary injunction against South Dakota’s so-called “riot-boosting” laws.

The trio of laws were passed at the end of the 2019 legislative session with the stated intention of going after out-of-state money funding riots, allowing the State to “follow the money and cut it off at the source.”

In March, Dakota Rural Action and other local civil rights groups filed suit against Governor Kristi Noem, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, alleging that newly passed anti-riot-boosting laws were intended to deny pipeline protesters their right of free speech.

In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Lawrence Piersol said that the laws have an immediate chilling effect that harms the first amendment rights of those who want to peacefully protest construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through South Dakota. In contrast, the specific harm to the State that the laws seek to address is unknown and in the future.

Piersol said in his opinion that laws intended to “keep outsiders out” are not “a laudable goal as we are a nation of 50 states with each citizen in any state having the same rights of free speech and assembly in every state.” However, in the very next sentence, he says, “no one has the right to start or participate in a riot.”

The injunction enjoins the state from enforcing most of the provisions of the laws. The order also denies a state request to send the case to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

The judge noted that the South Dakota State Legislature will meet again before the start of the next construction season, “and could pass legislation to meet federal constitutional requirements if it wishes to supplement what remains of the riot boosting statues.”

As part of the order, Judge Piersol removed Sheriff Thom as a defendant in the suit.The plaintiffs had originally included Thom in the suit because of his role in enforcing the laws.

Thom’s attorneys, Rebecca Mann and J. Crisman Palmer, filed a motion to dismiss the sheriff from the suit in April, arguing a local law enforcement official charged with upholding State laws cannot be sued for enforcing those laws.

In Wednesday’s opinion Judge Piersol sided with Thom, saying only State officials can be held responsible for State policy choices.

“The Governor and the Attorney General do not dispute that they are proper defendants in this case,” said Piersol in his written opinion. “A decision against the Governor and Attorney General will redress Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.”

Sheriff Thom issued a statement after Judge Piersol’s opinion was released, saying, “I felt my inclusion in the lawsuit was improper from the beginning, and am pleased the Judge agreed and dismissed me from the lawsuit.”

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