Three protesters of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline challenged a Louisiana law aimed and protecting "critical infrastructure," saying in a lawsuit filed Friday that they were arrested in violation of their free speech and other civil rights.

The protesters claim state Probation and Parole officers, St. Martin Parish sheriff's deputies and private security contractors hired by the pipeline's builder worked together to block their way on Bayou Bee, remove them from their kayaks or canoes and whisk them by water and land to the St. Martin jail for booking.

The contractors and the officers, who were wearing black Probation and Parole shirts, used fan boats in an effort to blow the protesters' paddle-powdered crafts to shore, the lawsuit alleges. The protesters were eventually taken to waiting craft manned by St. Martin sheriff's deputies for a 50-minute boat ride before they were taken ashore and booked with a felony critical infrastructure count and a resisting arrest count. One protester, Eric Moll, of Oakland, California, was also booked with interfering with a law enforcement investigation count.

They were released and have yet to be charged by prosecutors in St. Martin Parish. 

“Bayou Bridge Pipeline used Louisiana law and Louisiana law enforcement officers as tools to suppress peaceful protests on open waters,” said Eric Foley from the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, attorneys for the plaintiffs. “We intend to hold them accountable for their attack on our clients and their plan to silence the voices of these water protectors.”

The 163-mile, $750 million pipeline started moving oil in April between Texas and St. James Parish after a contentious construction process. The line had drawn fire from environmental groups concerned about its impact on historic cypress and hydrology in the Atchafalaya Swamp basin, over the company's tactics to acquire land for the pipeline route and the efforts to stymie protests at the construction sites.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, names St. Martin Parish Sheriff Ronald Theriot, six Probation and Parole officers, up to 10 unidentified sheriff's deputies, Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC and HUB Enterprises Inc. of Broussard, a private security company hired by Bayou Bridge. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees and a court order that the actions violated state and federal law.

The plaintiffs are Sophia Cook-Phillips of Sacramento, California; Moll; and Cynthia Spoon of Denton, Texas.

Ken Pastorick, spokesman for state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said on Friday the Probation and Parole officers "were working an off-duty detail for a private contractor and were not representing the department."

The sheriff's office said it had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment; Attempts to reach Bayou Bridge and HUB Enterprises were unsuccessful late Friday.

The lawsuit accuses Sheriff Theriot of agreeing before July 27, 2018, to allow deputies to work details for Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC and HUB Enterprises Inc. The suit also alleges Probation and Parole made a similar agreement. 

The clash that is the subject of the lawsuit happened on Aug. 9, 2018, eight days after the new state law took effect that made it a felony to enter "critical infrastructure," like areas around pipelines, without authorization.

But the lawsuit notes that the new law has exceptions built for the right of protest and the right of people to engage in recreational activity in "open or unconfined areas around a pipeline, including but not limited to … boating."

Suit alleges the three protesters were not trespassing but remained in navigable water.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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