It was Father's Day. Brandon Rinehart, his son, and Brandon's father were on the family mining claim doing what they always did on Father's Day; running a small suction dredge looking for gold. Although the California legislature had emplaced a ban on the use of this equipment because of environmental concerns, the recently completed environmental impact report showed no significant issues for Brandon's claim and the constitutionality of the dredging ban was being challenged in court.
A few days earlier Rinehart had been approached on his claim by two people on ATVs who asked him some questions about his mining operation and left. Two days later officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife showed up and cited him for dredging without a permit, and seized his mining equipment.
Nearly a year later, in May 2013, he defended his mining in the Plumas County court, citing the impossibility of complying with a law which required a permit, but there was no means to obtain this permit. Rinehart based his defense on federal law which encourage and supported mining, and the conflict with California law which forbid mining. Rinehart argued federal law should prevail.
The Plumas County judge refused to weigh Rinehart's argument and convicted him of dredging without a permit and fined him $800.00. Rinehart chose to appeal his conviction and pay much larger legal bills than had he just accepted the conviction.
In September 2014 the Appeals Court panel of three judges unanimously decided Rineahrt was unfairly convicted and ordered the case returned to the trial court for a new trial where Rinehart could present a defense as is his constitutional right. In their opinion the Appeals Court stated the trial court should decide whether the California law made it commercially impracticle for a miner to work his claim.
California, unwilling to allow Rinehart a trial petitioned the state Supreme Court rather than let the case go back to Plumas County, a county devestated by over zealous environmental rules. The state Supreme Court accepted the case for hearing.
It is unusual for a state Supreme Court to accept a case where no trial record exists. In Rinehart's case there is no trail record where a defense was presented, a defense the Appeals Court ordered. Rinehart was never able to present his defense which was centered on federal mining law preempting state mining bans.
The Appeals Court stated in their ruling:
Having no evidence in the record relevant to the opeative issues bearing on defendant's affirmative defense, we must return the matter to the trial court for further proceedings on the issue of preemption, admitting whatever evidence, and hearing whatever argument, the trail court, in its discretion, demms releavant and then rule accordingly. Specifically, the trial court must address at least these two questions: (1) Does section 5653.1 as currently applied, operate as a practical matter to prohibit the issuance of permits required by section 5653; and (2) If so, has this de facto ban on suction dredge mining permits rendered commercially impracticable the eercise of defendant's mining rights granted to him by the federal government?
The trial record still doesn't exist, but the Appeals Court ruling is very supportive of Rinehart's defense. If Rinehart prevails in the state Supreme Court the State scheme of requiring permits, but then refusing to issue them, will be struck down. However, the state Supreme Court could also agree with the Appeals Court and send the case back to the trial court, or the Supreme Court could uphold the conviction which would be a major blow to mining rights.
Only one thing is certain, the Rinehart case is the most important case for mining rights in a long, long time.