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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 7th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 52

U.S. Supreme Court sends Dennis Apel's case back down

BY RYAN MILLER

After mulling arguments in United States v. Apel throughout the winter, the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26 made a unanimous ruling that does little to resolve the issue at the heart of the local case and instead boots it back to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit.

Dennis Apel has been protesting at Vandenberg Air Force Base for almost 20 years. The actions that most concretely set him off on the road to the U.S. Supreme Court happened in 2003, when he flung blood—his blood—on a sign and was arrested, briefly jailed, and ordered to stay away from the base for several years. Another protest action in 2007 garnered him another arrest and a letter permanently barring him from base property, though he continued to come to a designated protest area—and collect warnings—in following years.

In 2010, upon refusing to leave the protest zone after being asked to do so, Apel was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of three counts of trespassing under a code making it illegal for a person to be found within any military, naval, or Coast Guard “reservation, post, fort, arsenal, yard, station, or installation” after being removed and barred from re-entry.

Two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, overturned Apel’s conviction on the belief that the federal government doesn’t have exclusive possession rights to the protest zone, which sits in an easement on Pacific Coast Highway 1.

With its Feb. 26 ruling, the Supreme Court disagreed, writing that a “better reading” of the code includes an understanding that it reaches “all property within the defined boundaries of a military place that is under the command of a military officer.” Though Highway 1 is considered a public thoroughfare, it passes through base property.

Apel’s legal team had also raised First Amendment arguments, which the Supreme Court refused to hear, as the Court of Appeals ruling didn’t touch on them. To that end, the justices remanded the case back to the 9th Circuit, where such arguments may next be heard.

Apel told the Sun that his case has 25 days from the ruling in which to go back to the panel that originally heard his case and overturned his convictions. The next go-round will focus entirely on the issue of free speech.

Apel thinks the 9th Circuit would likely rule in his favor, and, if so, that the federal government would likely again petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. He believes he’ll ultimately prevail.

In the meantime, Apel is planning to continue with his protests. He scheduled a press conference of sorts to coincide with a monthly vigil at the base’s main gate from 3:45 to 4:45 p.m. on March 5; there, he aimed to explain the details of his case and the reason behind his protests and arrests.

He acknowledged to the Sun that he could be arrested again, since “the Supreme Court sort of gave them permission to do that,” though he hoped he wouldn’t be. Beyond that, he hoped that his message wouldn’t get lost in the various turns of governmental screws.

“The mission of the base is horrific,” he said, “and that’s what we’re trying to shed a light on. … They test ICBMs, the most horrible weapon ever devised by humankind.”

Apel also raised issues of radiation, damage to the Marshall Islands, and satellites that allow for the operation of unmanned drones in bombing actions with little to no accountability.

“I don’t need everyone to agree with me, though I don’t really understand why people want nuclear weapons,” he said. “What I do need is for our government to allow a private citizen to stand outside the gates and say, ‘I disagree with this.’”