A Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protester and photographer was cleared of all charges Thursday after he was accused of endangering a police plane with his drone.
Aaron Turgeon, also known as Prolific the Rapper, faced seven years in prison after he was arrested in October and charged with reckless endangerment and physical obstruction of a government function. Prosecutors said he had put the pilot of a surveillance plane, as well as water protectors on the ground, in harm's way when he used a drone to capture protest footage over a DAPL site.
The footage proved to be useful in the trial, which ended in one day after Judge Allan Schmalenberger found that Turgeon flew his drone in a "methodical manner" and did not put others at "substantial risk of bodily injury under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life," the Bismarck Tribune reported.
"The defendant did not fly the drone at the plane. He did not fly the drone in a reckless manner over either the people or at the plane," Schmalenberger said.
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Turgeon testified that he was flying the drone to film the protest, and that he was aware of the police plane's position and made sure to stay out of its way. He said protesters raised their fists when they saw the drone, indicating that they wanted to be filmed, the Tribune reported. Turgeon documented the DAPL resistance often, posting videos and livestreams to various Facebook groups. Among the footage he captured was of police assaulting protesters with water cannons and tear gas.
North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Shannon Henke, who spoke with Turgeon at the scene and briefly attempted to confiscate the drone, testified in court that the aerial device could have fallen from the sky and injured someone. The incident helped prompt the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement a no-fly zone over the protest sites.
"It's a call for other judges here in Morton County to understand that there might be things happening that you're not seeing," Turgeon said Thursday. "In my case, they tried to take my drone. If they would have taken my drone, I would not have video evidence that showed I never flew toward that plane."
Protests against the controversial $3.8 billion pipeline led to 761 arrests between August and February, the Tribune noted. Many of those arrested face similarly egregious and trumped-up charges. DAPL has already seen multiple oil spills, even before becoming fully operational.