Freelance reporter Karen Savage arrested for felony trespassing while covering anti-pipeline protest in Louisiana
On Aug. 18, 2018, freelance investigative reporter Karen Savage was arrested under a felony trespassing law, while reporting on protests against the construction of the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline in Louisiana. At the time, Savage was on assignment for The Appeal, a progressive news site focused on criminal justice issues.
Savage was embedded with a camp of protesters, known as water protectors, who were aiming to defend a piece of land in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, a wetlands area co-owned by hundreds of people. Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, is trying to build its new Bayou Bridge oil pipeline through the area. Although some of the co-owners of the Atchafalaya Basin property have given the company permission to build the pipeline, hundreds of others have refused to do so. Despite this, the company had already begun making alterations to the land, including removing trees and digging a ditch. It has also asked the state of Louisiana to use eminent domain to seize the land from the co-owners who object to the pipeline.
Savage told Freedom of the Press Foundation that one of the co-owners of the Atchafalaya Basin land who is resisting the pipeline had given her permission to be on the property.
“Some were actively resisting, and I had a letter from a landowner saying we were welcome to be on the property," she said. "For people to visit the property, you only need permission from one landowner.”
On Aug. 18, Savage was with three water protectors, taking pictures and reporting, when she was arrested by sheriff's deputies from the nearby St. Martin Parish.
“I wasn’t even on the contested part of the land,” she said. “Sheriff’s deputies showed up and said I had to leave. I said I had permission to be there. I didn’t think I, or anyone else, would be arrested.”
She showed the officer a photograph of letter she had from a landowner, granting her permission to remain on the property. She said that she urged the officer to call the landowner, but he declined to do so. Officers then arrested her and the three water protectors who were with her.
Savage was one of the first people to be arrested under a newly-enacted Louisiana state law against "unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure project," which went into effect on Aug. 1. The new Louisiana state law makes trespassing on a "critical infrastructure project" like an oil pipeline a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. (Trespassing on land that is not a "critical infrastructure project" remains a misdemeanor.)
Although Savage was arrested under the law, the local district attorney has not yet brought any criminal charges against her.
After Savage was released on bail, she returned to the area to continue reporting on the protests against the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
“I bonded out, and kept reporting,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be intimidated.”
She later published a piece in The Appeal about her arrest and the way that Energy Transfer Partners employs off-duty law enforcement officers as a private security force, which works closely with uniformed St. Martin Parish sheriff's deputies to arrest pipeline protesters.
The St. Martin’s Sheriff Department did not respond to request for comment.
On Sept. 18, 2018, Savage was arrested for a second time while covering the protests against the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
On July 13, 2021, Louisiana District Attorney Bofill “Bo” Duhé dropped the charges against freelance investigative journalist Karen Savage following her 2018 arrests while reporting on protests against the construction of the Bayou Bridge oil pipeline in St. Martin Parish, the Louisiana Illuminator reported.
Savage was arrested for trespassing first on Aug. 18, 2018, and then again exactly one month later on Sept. 18, under the then-newly enacted state law against “unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure project,” along with many others.
According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Savage and a dozen others in May 2019, Savage was charged with two felonies under the law and faced a combined 10 years imprisonment and heavy fines. In an article for DeSmog, Savage wrote that Louisiana prosecutors had four years to decide whether to pursue the charges against her.
“Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a Louisiana district attorney confirmed in July  that he will not prosecute me or the nearly two dozen pipeline opponents, known as ‘water protectors,’ who were also arrested,” Savage wrote.
“I do know the felony charges against me — and fear of what would happen if I was arrested while on bail for two felonies — prevented me from covering some of the most important events of the past three years, including protests after the police murder of George Floyd,” Savage wrote. “Election night I stayed home. I watched the January 6 insurrection on TV.”
In May 2021, District Judge Robert Summerhays granted District Attorney Duhé, Attorney General Jeff Landry and St. Martin Parish Sheriff Ronald Theriot’s motion to dismiss the claims brought by the landowners and organization plaintiffs in Savage’s lawsuit, but allowed Savage’s claims to move forward.
The case was transferred to the Western District of Louisiana and a trial is tentatively scheduled for August 2022.