Cross state lines, severely beat your spouse and face up to 20 years in federal prison. Sexually abuse a child whom a court assigns to your care and it’s 15 years.
But spike trees on a national forest and, if Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Helen Chenoweth have their way, you’ll face up to 40 years in the slammer.
Still, their bill proposing such hard time for tree spiking may be destined for obscurity after arriving at the House Judiciary Committee with little fanfare.
A spokeswoman for the committee said she had not heard of it.
Regardless, the Idaho Republicans’ proposal is absurd, said Roger Peven, head of the federal Public Defenders Office in Spokane. It’s hard to find a 40-year sentence for any federal crime, he said.
“You can go and rob Fort Knox and not get 40 years,” Peven said.
Increasing the penalty is necessary to deal with eco-terrorists whose “purpose is to injure or kill ordinary Americans engaged in lawful work,” Chenoweth said earlier this month in a prepared statement. “They’re going to have to sit in jail for these capers.”
Tree spikes damage chain saws and mill equipment and can injure loggers and mill workers. Craig has said he knows of several injuries and deaths due to spikings.
His office hasn’t been able to produce details of those events. What counts, however, is not the damage that’s been done, but what could be done, his spokesman said.
It doesn’t appear tree spiking is an epidemic yet. There have been about two dozen tree spiking incidents on national forests in the last five years, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officials said. Three spikings occurred in Idaho.
Nationwide, there is one reported injury and no deaths, the Forest Service said.
Evidence in the spiking that seriously injured a California mill worker “pointed away from environmentalists,” said Rik Scarce, a Montana State University sociologist who wrote “Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement.”
Only four people have been convicted of tree spiking-related incidents under federal laws. Two of the convictions are for Idaho spikings; two are for Montana incidents.
Timber industry lobbyists are applauding Chenoweth and Craig’s proposal to increase the maximum penalty for spiking from 20 years to 40 years.
“It’s the same as clubbing, stabbing, or shooting someone on an urban street,” said Barry Polsky, media relations director for the American Forest and Paper Association, a lobbying group for the timber industry. “It’s a serious problem. We’ve been worried about it for the last five or six years.”
Some criminal defense lawyers say the bill would make little difference in actual sentences.
At least one legal scholar says the Chenoweth-Craig measure could develop into a constitutional challenge.
“It sounds so stupid to me,” said James S. MacDonald, a University of Idaho law professor. “At some point the 8th Amendment kicks in (and) says that a statutory penalty is out of proportion to the crime committed.
“It seems to me this comes pretty close.”
It may come as close to grandstanding. That’s because 85 percent of federal defendants are sentenced under guidelines dictating far lighter terms than the maximum, said Alan Ellis, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The only way that would change is if the Craig-Chenoweth bill is modified to include language setting a minimum sentence. Or if the U.S. Sentencing Review Commission changed the sentencing guidelines to increase the minimum jail time for tree spiking, Ellis said.
Otherwise, “you could have a maximum sentence of 100 years and only serve 24 months,” he said.
The Craig-Chenoweth proposal surfaced about 10 days ago after the Nez Perce National Forest received a letter saying trees in three timber sales were spiked.
The letter was signed by a group calling itself “elves for habitat.” No spikes have been discovered and no arrests made.