Trump Pardons Oregon Ranchers Convicted in Brush Fire Case

Steve and Dwight Hammond became a cause célèbre for angry ranchers and another example of inflexible mandatory minimum sentences.


An activists pulls sentry duty at the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve on January 15, 2016 in Burns, Oregon. Ammon Bundy and about 20 other protesters took over the refuge on Jan. 2 after a rally to support the imprisoned local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond. // Jim Bryant/UPI/Newscom

President Donald Trump granted clemency today to two Oregon cattle ranchers whose case became a flashpoint in Western ranchers' bitter dispute with the federal government over land management.

The White House announced it is granting full pardons to Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son, 49-year-old Steven Hammond. The Hammonds were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands after two intentional brush fires spread from their ranch to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.

"The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West," the White House said in a statement. "Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency."

According to the Hammonds, one brush fire was to clear Juniper trees from their property. The other was a "back burn" to protect their winter feed from nearby wildfires. Prosecutors claimed that the first burn was actually done to cover up an illegal deer slaughter. In any case, neither burn had been approved. In the latter fire, a county-wide burn ban was in effect, and there were firefighters in the hills above who were put at risk.

A jury acquitted the Hammonds of some charges, but they were found guilty of two counts of arson. The Hammonds then found themselves facing sentencing under the expansive provisions of the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carried a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The judge in the Hammonds' case originally sentenced the two to prison terms far below the minimum, but federal prosecutors appealed the sentence. As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote, the case illustrates the injustices wrought by mandatory minimums:

On the face of it, those sentences were illegal, because the Hammonds had been convicted of violating 18 USC 844(f)(1), which prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum prison term for anyone who "maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive," any federal property. Hogan thought it was unlikely that Congress, which enacted that mandatory minimum in 1996 as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, intended it to cover the accidental burning of federal land "out in the wilderness." Such a sentence "would shock the conscience," he said, and violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments" because it would be "grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses."

Even the federal prosecutor who asked for the mandatory minimum conceded that "perhaps the best argument…the defendants have in this case is the proportionality of what they did to what their sentence is." He admitted that the mismatch was "troubling." The government nevertheless challenged the sentences that Hogan deemed appropriate, arguing that the law gave him no choice but to impose the mandatory minimum. In 2014 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, saying "a minimum sentence mandated by statute is not a suggestion that courts have discretion to disregard."

The Hammonds were ordered back to prison in 2015. (They had already served their original sentences.) This caught the attention of Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and his coterie of disaffected ranchers and militiamen.

Although the Hammonds had little interest in the Bundy brand of activism, Ammon Bundy and his followers organized a protest in rural Burns, Oregon, in support of the Hammonds. A small group of them then took over the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, eventually leading to the fatal police shooting of one of the occupiers.

As J.D. Tuccille wrote for Reason at the time, the entire incident was only a small peek at the long-festering resentment between western ranchers and the federal government:

Agree or not, westerners believe that they have more reason than other Americans to be angry at political leaders in Washington, D.C. The abuse of the Hammonds, with its roots in the almost colonial relationship between the federal government and the West, is a peek at why. And the goofballs occupying a cabin in Oregon, silly as they may be, are only the tip of an iceberg of discontent.

As for Ammon and Cliven Bundy, the federal case against them collapsed because of "flagrant procecutor misconduct" by U.S. Attorneys.