Civil disobedience case shows district attorneys can use discretion for positive outcomes

Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel SutterHere is some incredible news from The Boston Globe:

Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter knew the law. He also understood the threats posed by climate change. So for days he grappled with what to do about the two environmental activists facing criminal charges for blocking a 40,000-ton coal shipment last year to the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset.

Just as the trial was about to begin Monday, Sutter decided to drop all charges.

Then, in a dramatic appearance at Fall River District Court, he said he empathized with the stance of Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara, who said they were acting to reduce harm to the planet when they used the lobster boat Henry David T. to block the shipment to the coal-burning plant.

“Because of my sympathy with their position, I was in a dilemma,” Sutter said afterward. “I have a duty to go forward to some extent with this case and to follow the applicable case law, but they were looking for a forum to present their very compelling case about climate change.”

He added: “I do believe they’re right, that we’re at a crisis point with climate change.”


The district attorney vowed to join the “People’s Climate March” in New York, and said his decision to drop the charges “took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was also made with our concerns for their children, and the children of Bristol County and beyond, in mind.

“Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” Sutter said. “In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”

Afterward, he said wasn’t concerned that he and other prosecutors would be facing a flood of similar cases of activists breaking the law.

“This resolution today only sets a precedent within Bristol County for a case almost identical to this,” he said. “There is only a precedent for almost identical facts.”

Climate change isn't an issue I follow closely, but I really thought this story was worth highlighting because it shows the amount of discretion that prosecutors have and how they can use it to create positive outcomes.

No one wants district attorneys to let off murderers and rapists, but a district attorney who takes a "the law is the law" approach is bad news too. There plenty of cases where the law is out of whack with our values and sometimes -- perhaps even frequently -- a prosecutor refusing to pursue a case is the best outcome.

For example, public opinion is turning against the war on drugs. More people are starting to realize that the dangers of many illegal drugs have been greatly exaggerated (and sometimes entirely fabricated), that most drug users are at worst a danger only to themselves, and that treating drug abuse as a crime isn't the best way to deal with the issue. Medical marijuana laws are passing all over the country, two states have legalized pot for recreational use, several are likely to follow in their footsteps in the near future (including Massachusetts). Here in Massachusetts, a candidate for lieutenant governor can even say they support decriminalizing heroin and cocaine and still get an endorsement from The Boston Globe.

If prosecutors used their discretion in cases related to drugs, we'd see an end to the drug war much sooner.

Unfortunately, I regularly see news stories suggesting that prosecutors, like police officers, tend to be behind the times on this issue (here is an example from two days ago). Thankfully, even if prosecutors won't use their discretion to drop cases where people are accused of drug crimes, jurors still have the discretion to acquit them.