Lawyers for Burners has concluded its work for 2007, and we want to share the results of the project with the greater Burning Man community.
As background, Lawyers for Burners formed as an independent organization, separate from Burning Man, to provide Participants with legal resources to address the increase in law enforcement activities at our Event in 2007. By all accounts, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sharpened its tactics in 2007. As we reported, the BLM issued 331 federal citations on the Playa in 2007 compared to 155 in 2006. The number of Participants who were stopped by law enforcement was probably over a thousand. The effect was that Black Rock City felt, at times, like a police state.
In 2007, the BLM increased its vehicle patrols and increased the visibility of its law enforcement rangers. For example, armed officers wearing bullet proof vests stood daily watch in the middle of the dance floor at the Deep End. At night, the BLM conducted massive regular sting operations on the 2:00 side of the Playa around and inside the Opulent Temple dome. BLM officers, wearing camouflage uniforms and night goggles, stalked Participants as they gathered around or danced inside the dome. Nearby, the BLM officers maintained a holding area where they restrained Participants while six or eight officers search through the Participant’s clothing and belongings.
Lawyers for Burners began asking the Burning Man community to report personal encounters with BLM rangers which violated the US Constitution’s prohibition of unlawful searches and seizures. We communicated with over 50 Participants, and began to collect their stories. We learned that many were facing criminal prosecution after their constitutional rights were violated. In many instances, BLM Rangers tricked or coerced Participants into giving up their rights to be free from unlawful searches and citations.
As we worked with Participants, we discovered that many received tickets for offenses like “open container” and “speeding.” But in many instances, such conduct was not illegal. We discovered that the BLM had not followed its own notice requirements and that the federal court would likely to dismiss the charges. The Court did dismiss the illegal citations when Participants challenged them at the courthouse. But many others simply pled guilty to the offense and paid the citation by mail.
After collecting this information, Lawyers for Burners formulated a legal strategy to assist Participants by challenging the citations in federal court. Lawyers for Burners matched Participants with lawyers who agreed to assist them in the U.S. District Court in Reno, NV. Those lawyers either worked for free or for substantially reduced rates. We also launched a successful fund raising campaign over the internet to raise money to support our efforts. Lawyers for Burners never charged any of its clients for its work.
Throughout late 2007 and early 2008, we traveled to the courthouse in Reno and met with clients and potential clients at four separate arraignment calendars. We recruited a supportive team of Nevada lawyers to assist us as well. Our goal was to assist any Participant who received illegal citations from the BLM with resources, and in some cases, we signed on as counsel of record and defended Participants against criminal charges brought by the United States Government.
At the November 15, 2007 arraignment calendar, all of the Participants -- more than 20 -- challenged their citations. It was a beautiful sight, seeing every single participant who received a citation stand up and plead not guilty and ask for a trial date. The Court set trials throughout the months of December 2007 through April 2008.
Without getting into all of the details, federal law prohibits an officer from stopping or conducting a warrantless search of a Participant without a reasonable basis to believe that the Participant has committed or is about to commit a crime. When an officer does make a stop which results in the issuance of a citation, the officer must complete a short statement which details the officer’s “probable cause” for making stopping the Participant in the first place. The officer makes this statement under “penalty of perjury.”
When we reviewed the each officer’s Statement of Probable Cause, we found numerous instances of incomplete, inaccurate and fabricated testimony by the officers. In several cases, the officer stated that a Participant consented to the search or volunteered evidence of a crime. The Participants, their witnesses, and often the officer’s own statement, contradicted the supposed basis for the search. If the stop and search was illegal, anything the officer finds cannot be used as evidence of a crime. Such evidence is referred to as “fruit of a poisonous tree.”
We presented our defenses to the United States Attorney for Nevada, and in several cases, presented motions to suppress evidence unlawfully seized to the U.S. Magistrate Judge. To its credit, the United States Attorney’s office in Reno listened to our concerns about the conduct of some of the BLM officers. The United States Attorney decided not to prosecute certain cases. In other cases, the Government’s lawyer agreed to charge many Participants with a lesser offense such as “littering,” and he agreed to reduce the fine by half.
Overall, Lawyers for Burners was able to communicate with 54 Participants who received BLM citations in 2007. We tried to reach more Participants, but the Court changed its procedures after the first arraignment and stopped publishing the court docket. Thus, we could only help Participants who contacted us based on our internet postings or walked up to us at one of the arraignment calendars. Of those with whom we communicated, we assisted or represented 30 Participants. Of those 30 Participants, all but one had their charge dismissed or reduced by the Court or by the United States Attorney.
While we are proud or our efforts and are grateful to everyone who donated time or money to the project, we now realize that the project is just beginning. We are pleased that we were able to assist many Participants with attorney resources after she has victimized by illegal law enforcement activity. But there are many more Participants whom we did not reach or were not able to help. Also, we expect that there will be a whole new group of Participants who will need assistance in 2008. Finally, we need to continue to our efforts so that the BLM and its individual officers understand that for every citation they issue and for every statement they write in a probable cause affidavit, a lawyer will investigate the alleged offense and cross-examine the officer’s testimony in court.
In preparation for the 2008 Event, we are working on improving the collection of information from Participants who encounter law enforcement on the Playa. We plan to make survey forms available at Ranger Stations, Playa Info and other locations throughout the City for people to describe their encounter and leave contact information for us to follow up. We also plan to expand our outreach and education efforts to inform Participants about how they should respond when stopped by law enforcement on the Playa. This will include producing and distributing a laminated card which contains information for the Participant and a message to law enforcement that the holder of this card does not consent to any search. Finally, Black Rock Legal will engage the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior in legal and administrative proceedings to reform the BLM law enforcement activity and ensure that its officers are better trained and better supervised in the future.
We will continue to collect ideas and offers of assistance as we get ready for the 2008 Event. Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement.
David S. Levin
Lawyers for Burners.