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United States v. McDill

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 15, 2017

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Thomas P. McDill, Jr. Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: February 10, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Rapid City

          Before LOKEN, COLLOTON, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         Following a bench trial before a magistrate judge, Thomas McDill, who represented himself, was convicted of two violations of 36 C.F.R. § 261.3(c), which prohibits "[t]hreatening, intimidating, or intentionally interfering with any Forest officer . . . while engaged in, or on account of, the performance of duties for the protection, improvement, or administration of the National Forest System or other duties assigned by the Forest Service." He appeals those convictions. We reverse.

         I. Background

         Thomas McDill owned property abutting Black Hills National Forest near Custer, South Dakota. On May 20, 2013, McDill visited the office of the United States Forest Service's Hell Canyon Ranger District, which manages part of the Black Hills National Forest. He spoke with Todd Gohl, a support services specialist for the district, about slash piles (piles of debris from trimming bushes and trees) on forest land. Gohl testified at trial that he was unable to answer all of McDill's questions and suggested McDill file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Gohl then referred McDill to timber staff officer Patricia Hudson because Gohl thought she might be able to answer more of McDill's questions. Hudson testified that she and McDill spoke for about forty-five minutes. According to Gohl, McDill later returned to the office with a FOIA request. Gohl testified that although this was not the proper way to file a FOIA request, the Forest Service initiated action on the request.

         On the morning of June 11, 2013, McDill visited the office of the Black Hills National Forest Supervisor and spoke with Gregory McGranahan, a timber sale contracting officer. McGranahan testified at trial that McDill asked him about removing some beetle-infested trees on forest land near his property. McGranahan explained that McDill would need to obtain a permit from the district office, and arranged for McDill to meet a Forest Service employee at that office at 1:30 p.m. At around 11:30 a.m., McDill arrived at the district office. When he arrived, Gohl was at the office. Gohl testified that McDill asked him for a letter permitting his friend to remove the beetle-infested trees. Gohl told McDill that no one with the authority to provide such a letter was available, because the other Forest Service employees were at an internal district safety meeting. Gohl informed McDill that someone would be available to speak with him around 1:00 p.m., after the meeting had concluded. McDill asked where the meeting was, and Gohl told him it was at the local high school.

         McDill proceeded to the high school, where the safety meeting was coming to a close. Hudson had attended the meeting, and McDill approached her as she was leaving. Hudson testified that she recognized McDill from their prior interaction, and that she was startled to see him at the high school because the safety meeting was not public. Hudson told him she was going to lunch, and would meet with him between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m. that day. McDill told her that he did not want to wait. Hudson asked him what she could help him with, and McDill asked her about cutting down beetle-infested trees near his land. Hudson said it was too late in the season, and the Forest Service would not issue a permit. McDill asked what would happen if he cut them anyway, and Hudson said he would be issued a fine. At this point, Hudson testified, McDill was moving into her space and speaking in an aggressive tone, and she felt uncomfortable and intimidated. She eventually told McDill that she would not discuss the matter any further, and McDill left. Another employee, Kelly Honors, testified that she heard Hudson use an uncharacteristically loud voice to respond to McDill, and that Hudson remained "very shaken" after McDill left.

         Hudson contacted Forest Service law enforcement officer Eric Nelson, and explained what happened. She told him that she thought McDill would come to her office and that she did not want to meet with him. Nelson testified that he encountered McDill in the district office parking lot around 1:30 p.m. that day. McDill explained to Nelson that he wanted a permit to cut down the beetle-infested trees. He also told Nelson that he wanted to start a business to remove slash piles from forest land. Nelson issued a citation to McDill for "intentionally interfering w USFS employee in process of her duties" in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 261.3(c) for his conduct toward Hudson after the safety meeting. Nelson also gave McDill a letter acknowledging receipt of the FOIA request McDill had given Gohl. Nelson told McDill that they would be willing to work with McDill after his FOIA request was fully processed and returned, but that in the meantime, McDill was to have no contact with other Forest Service employees.

         The letter Nelson gave McDill indicated that a Forest Service employee named Matt Spring would contact McDill to provide him with information regarding the slash piles. McDill discovered that Spring worked at the Forest Service's fire management office in Custer and decided to visit the office to speak to Spring. When he arrived, Gwen Lipp, the district fire management officer, was leaving the building. She testified at trial that she was surprised to see McDill because she was not expecting any visitors to the office. Lipp informed McDill that Spring was not at work that day, and offered to assist him instead. Lipp testified that McDill seemed angry and frustrated. They went inside the building and sat in her office. Because she felt nervous about being alone with McDill, she asked another fire management employee to remain in the office next to hers. She testified that she and McDill spoke for about forty minutes, and that he had a "roller-coaster" demeanor and would not stay calm. According to Lipp, McDill told her that he was upset because he had been arrested for harassing a Forest Service employee, when he had simply been trying to obtain information. Eventually, Lipp and McDill agreed on a plan for Lipp to help him find the information he sought. After McDill left, Lipp contacted Forest Service law enforcement and explained what happened. Nelson then issued a second citation to McDill for "harassment interference w/ USFS employee in process of her duties" in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 261.3(c) for his conduct toward Lipp.

         At the close of trial, the magistrate judge orally convicted McDill of both counts, and imposed fines and processing fees totaling $650. McDill appealed pro se to the district court, and the district court denied the appeal. McDill appealed pro se to the Eighth Circuit, and we appointed an attorney, who filed a supplemental brief.

         II. Discussion

         36 C.F.R. § 261.3(c) prohibits "[t]hreatening, intimidating, or intentionally interfering with any Forest officer, volunteer, or human resource program enrollee while engaged in, or on account of, the performance of duties for the protection, improvement, or administration of the National Forest System or other duties assigned by the Forest Service." The two citations McDill received from Nelson listed his offenses as "intentionally interfering w USFS employee in process ...


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