The U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah initiated the case of U.S. v. Jared Ehlers less than 30 days after the defendant allegedly removed, stole, and discarded the dinosaur fossil on or around February 17. Authorities believe that the dinosaur footprint was thrown into a river.
An indictment begins the criminal court process. It is not a finding of guilt. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The four-count federal indictment--more reminiscent of charging documents filed in state courts because of its brevity--charges Ehlers with violating the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) at 16 U.S.C. § 470aaa-5 as well violating three sections of the federal criminal code, namely stealing public property under 18 U.S.C. § 641, damaging federal property under 18 U.S.C. § 1361, and destroying evidence under 18 U.S.C. § 1519.
All together, the possible penalties include a prison term of 45 years, with the longest incarceration potentially coming from the destruction of evidence charge. Ehlers likely would not receive the maximum sentences were he to be convicted.
The case may be among the first of its kind--if not the first case--prosecuted under PRPA.* That statute, signed into law on March 30, 2009, is an outgrowth of a Department of Interior report published in 2000 titled Assessment of Fossil Management on Federal and Indian Lands. The report recommended that
[f]uture actions should penalize the theft of fossils from federal lands in a way that maximizes the effectiveness of prosecutions and deters future thefts. Penalties should take into account, among other factors, the value of fossils themselves, as well as any damage resulting from their illegal collection.
*UPDATE July 9, 2014: Further research suggests that U.S. v. Ehlers may be the first direct, non-conspiracy conviction under PRPA. See the blog post describing the guilty plea entered in this case here.