By: Daniel McElroy
Musician and filmmaker Aaron Shawn Turgeon, otherwise known as Prolific the Rapper, has been acquitted of all charges related to his actions during last year’s Dakota Access Pipeline protests, following a one day trial on May 25.
Turgeon, who faced up to seven years in prison for flying a drone over the crowd of water protectors to film their demonstrations, was arrested last October and charged with “reckless endangerment” and “physical obstruction of a government function”. Prosecutors accused him of having flown his drone dangerously close to a government surveillance plane and argued that he had needlessly endangered members of the crowd below his drone.
Police made 761 arrests between August 2016 and February 2017, and many of those arrested have faced an onslaught of particularly tough felony charges, but Turgeon’s case in particular scared many who believed it might set a “dangerous precedent for citizen drone pilots”.
During the trial, Turgeon testified that the drone had never risen above 400 feet, a legal height well below the 500 feet that the plane had maintained. He also said that the protesters held up their fists when they saw the drone because they wanted to be filmed. This evidence was backed up by the drone footage itself, which Turgeon was lucky to use in court though the police had briefly tried to confiscate it (he was not required to surrender it as he was never placed under arrest).
Judge Allan Schmalenberger acquitted Turgeon at the end of the one day trial, finding that he had not put others at “substantial risk of bodily injury under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” The decision was a relief for activists who feel they should be allowed to continue using drones during their demonstrations to film their own protests for streaming on social media and for oversight of police activity.
The Voice Project is proud to have contributed to Prolific’s defense fund, and stands with the protectors who remain in the process of defending themselves against specious charges related to their defense of native lands against the Dakota Access Pipeline last year.