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Monday, March 24, 2014

Dinosaur Track Gone, Utah Man Indicted for Violation of PRPA

A grand jury indictment handed up this month charges a Utah man with taking and destroying a three-toed dinosaur track near the Hell’s Revenge Trail at the Sand Flats Recreation Area. The area forms part of the the 258 million acres of public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

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.
Federal prosecutors have moved quickly in the Ehlers case, buoyed by federal, state, and county cooperation. The Grand County Sheriff's Office earlier reported that the agency was working with the Utah Department of Safety and BLM to find the fossil track possibly beneath the waters of the Colorado River.

Cultural property prosecutions remain infrequent and require continuing public and judicial support. So it is wise in this case that prosecutors chose to have the defendant summoned to court rather than arrested. The decision contrasts with the FBI and BLM raids in 2009 that ignited a long-running feud between citizens, collectors, dealers, and law enforcement authorities in the American Southwest.

*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.

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com