Attorney: Dakota Access protester jailed after refusing to comply with grand jury investigation

An attorney for Steve Martinez, a Bismarck resident, said he was arrested after being held in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena for a federal investigation into the 2016 injury of another protester.

Law enforcement stands off with #NoDAPL protesters on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, at the Backwater Bridge along Highway 1806. Photo via Morton County

BISMARCK — A Dakota Access Pipeline protester was arrested and admitted to a Burleigh County jail last week for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury investigation into the 2016 injury of another protester, according to his attorney.

Steve Martinez, a 46 year-old Bismarck resident who participated in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline four years ago, was detained Wednesday, Feb. 3, in the Burleigh County Detention Center.

His attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, said he was arrested after being held in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena for an investigation into the injury of Sophia Wilansky, a New York woman who was severely wounded in a violent clash between anti-DAPL protesters and law enforcement in late 2016.

Martinez also refused to participate in grand jury proceedings looking into Wilansky's injury four years ago, and Meltzer-Cohen said that he decided to take jail time in a principled stand against the use of grand juries rather than cooperate with the latest subpoena.

In a statement on his arrest over the weekend, Martinez said, "The state should not be intimidating people and trying to blame us for harm they caused. I didn’t want to lose my freedom, but they are not going to break me."


Meltzer-Cohen supplied a copy of a motion submitted by attorneys last week to quash the subpoena. The document states that a federal agent attempted to question Martinez at his Bismarck home in November of last year, and Martinez received the subpoena for another grand jury investigation a few days later, summoning him for an appearance on Feb. 3.

"It is unthinkable that if the government was conducting a bona fide criminal investigation into the cause of the injury to Ms. Wilansky, it would have permitted a lapse of more than forty four months before reissuing a grand jury subpoena to Mr. Martinez," attorneys wrote in the motion.

They argued federal officials' claims that they could not locate Martinez in the years since the 2017 grand jury investigation were dubious, since he has maintained the same Bismarck address the whole time.

The motion notes that the grand jury subpoena was served to Martinez by North Dakota's Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme. In a phone call, Delorme said that he could not confirm or deny the existence of a federal grand jury investigation.

Grand jury proceedings are compulsory and shielded from the public, and Meltzer-Cohen said her client refused to comply with the investigation to take a stand against an institution of the American legal system that his side views as unfair and manipulative of members in political activist communities.

"Many people object to grand juries on principle because they are secret proceedings that are characterized by coercion," she said. Meltzer-Cohen argued grand juries have developed into a biased tool that provides prosecutors with a one-sided testimony to jurors while gaining access to information typically protected under the First Amendment.

"I think there's a lot of things about this subpoena that are inherently suspect," she said.

Wilansky's injury, which she suffered from an explosion during a Dakota Access Pipeline protest in November of 2016, has been the subject of an ongoing legal dispute with North Dakota law enforcement. Protesters allege her injury was caused by a concussion grenade thrown by police officers, but law enforcement said it resulted from an explosive device rigged by protesters. A federal judge dismissed defamation claims against officers in the Wilansky suit a few days before Martinez received his subpoena last November.


Grand juries have come under heightened scrutiny in the last year, in part because of a national spotlight on the grand jury investigation into the killing of Breonna Taylor during a botched raid by Louisville, Ky., police. Prosecutors hold enormous sway over the evidence presented before grand juries, and critics argued that they have a track record of indicting civilians at significantly higher rates than police officers.

Martinez's request to quash the subpoena was rejected by U.S. Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal, according to a denial order also supplied by Meltzer-Cohen and signed by Senechal.

In the denial, Senechal wrote that Martinez's side had not sufficiently made their case that the grand jury request was "unreasonable or oppressive."

Martinez may be detained until he agrees to testify, or for the 18-month length of the grand jury investigation, according to his attorneys.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at

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