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The movie Dinosaur 13 is coming off of Netflix, so I thought I had better watch it while I can.

This movie got put into my queue by my kids. They wanted to watch Dinosaur movies and were looking at anything that Netflix dredged up as related to their interests. I don’t think they watched much of this one, as there is a complete lack of animated Dinosaurs. However, when I was checking out their viewing history I managed to watch the first half-a-minute or so and I thought that this film sounded kind of interesting. I put in my streaming queue, but never managed to get around to it.

The opening titles explain that, in 1990, there were only 12 Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons that had been unearthed around the world. None had more than 40% of the skeleton recoverable. The name of the film comes from the finding of the 13th.

The movie starts out with the locating and extracting of that 13th specimen. It was not only larger than any other known T-Rex fossil, but also roughly 90% complete. The story is told with a combination of present-day interviews with the participants and video camera footage taken by them during the dig.

It quickly becomes evident that this movie is less about dinosaurs than it is a story about the Federal Bureaucracy. Yes, terms like “dinosaur” and “fossil” may well still apply, but unfortunately they don’t refer to a species long extinct.

The real story of the film is the horror of having agents of the Federal government set their sights upon you and then proceed to utterly destroy you while backed by the full faith and credit of the People of the United States.

The narrative of what happened is convoluted and, mostly likely, unknowable down to every detail. I’ll try a short version. If you would rather watch the movie and have it delivered to you in a nice presentation, I’d say stop here. The film is well done, and worth watching – and it may be made better if you don’t know what is coming.

The basics are this – an organization (Black Hills Institute) of privately-organized (i.e. non-goverment, non-university) fossil hunters discover a ground-breaking example of a T-Rex fossil. After an agreement with the landowner, they remove the fossil and begin preparing it (most likely) to be displayed in their own museum, which they will build to house this and their other artifacts. Someone (unknown in the movie) notifies the Feds. It turns out that the fossil was located on an Indian Reservation, which would have made it the property of the Indian Tribe. The film suggests that perhaps the tribe brought the original complaint. However, the particular parcel of land is actual held in trust by the U.S. Government for an individual (Indian) landowner, the landowner who agreed to sell the fossil in the first place.  The film suggests also that perhaps the landowner brought the original complaint, as a way to get out of his original agreement to sell. The identity of the complainant is not known. In any case, because the parcel is held in trust, the selling of land (and a Federal judge, eventually, concludes that because fossils are really just “rock” they are, indeed, land) requires a permit (cost $100) be obtained the Bureau of Indian Affairs – to protect the Indian from himself one presumes. Furthermore, as U.S. Federal Land, the Antiquities Act of 1906 prevents unlicensed removal of any artifact without prior permission of the U.S. Government. Throw into all this, once the Federal action begins, the landowner claims he did not consent to the original sale of the fossil and says therefore that the Black Hills Institute folks should never have taken the fossil away in the first place. The fossil, the records of its discovery and collection, and many of the other records of the Black Hills Institute are seized and impounded by the Government who claims, because of all the improprieties, that it now owns the fossil.

Ultimately, the fossil is returned to the landowner. The original sale was for $5000, which was a record sum at the time. He sells again at auction, this time to the Chicago Museum of Natural History (backed by major corporate sponsors) for $7.6 million.

In the meantime, the tale takes another turn. The Federal Government brings charges against five individuals and the business entity itself for various violations under the Antiquities Act, charges totally some 150 counts. Many of these are felonies. If convicted, some individuals face incarceration for several hundred years. The Tyrannosaur fossil that started all of this, however, is absent from the indictment, likely because of the determination of the courts that it was privately owned. The crimes charged are not particularly serious from a layman’s standpoint. They mostly involve collecting fossils from the land borders where the diggers thought they were on one side of a border and the government asserts they are on the other. But, as it goes with Federal crimes, the government has built upon the charges. A fossil dug without a permit first crosses state lines (to give the Feds jurisdiction) and then is sold overseas. Charges can include then the transfer of money internationally (wire fraud and money laundering) and of course that old standby, conspiracy (because there is a team of fossil collectors involved).

At the end of the trial, all but a dozen of the charges are dismissed and there is only a single individual to whom a felony has stuck. In one of the examples, failing to declare the carrying of travelers checks upon returning from Japan results a felony customs violation. The defendant maintains that the form in which he had the travelers checks issued exempts them from declaration. While this detail made the transport of the travelers checks legal, the distinction between different check endorsement options was simply too complicated to convincingly explain to a jury. Note that it is not alleged that any impropriety occurred with the money. Once back in the United States, the money was deposited in the banking system, properly accounted for, and all taxes and fees were paid. For the convictions, the judge ordered double the maximum sentence – a total of two years in Federal prison for the improper completion of customs forms. The title quote is the governments entry on the prisoner’s intake forms.

The movie speculates that the judge was driven to punish these defendants (they tried several times to get him to recuse himself for bias) because he was swayed by a divide between the academic/governmental paleontologists and the amateur/for-profit fossil hunters. While for most of our history it was private interests that discovered the fossil record, since the late 1970s those in academia see those without as essentially pirates, stealing the heritage of humanity for their own nefarious purposes. One theory is that these individuals were punished so heavily as a warning to others to stay out of the federally-funded university system’s playground.

We are also treated to some interviews with the Bureau of Land Management’s agent who investigated and compiled the charges. He explains his righteous cause in protecting public assets from theft. It makes sense. It is only when one sees this taken to its logical, albeit absurd, conclusion that one starts to question whether this kind of power is really necessary. Particularly so in light of the modus operandi of Federal prosecutors to use maximum force (150 charges) to hammer anyone who strays outside the law.

Most of us understand that without recourse from the law, there are bad actors in our society that will take advantage of the rest of us. Indeed, they often will either way, but we enact laws to try to prevent, mitigate, and punish. When we see an obvious wrong (e.g. a commercial entity profiting by taking valuable minerals from public land), we fully support efforts to protect the public interest. Law enforcement likes broad and, perhaps, vague laws so that they have the “tools” to deal with such wrongdoing. If they recognize that something bad is happening, they want the law to be broad enough to cover them. This allows them some discretion to enforce or not enforce, depending on their take on the individual situation. Most will say that they use their discretion, and won’t pursue purely technical violations. And yet, I’ve read time and again about prosecutors coming up with creative interpretations of laws allowing them to punish individuals for doing things that on the face of it are not illegal. Particularly at the Federal level, there seems to be a goal of charging everyone who is targeted and convicting everyone is charged. With each of us committing 3 felonies per day, in practice that means the Federal government can pretty much jail anybody, for any reason, at any time.

This is not a good thing.

Thus many of us would rather see too few laws than too many. More left to individual action and reaction than clear guidance in the laws of this land, even if that leaves loopholes for the worst of society to exploit. For this, we are called extremists and worse. But I don’t think it is an extreme view to see the occasional horrible and unjust abuse of the law as an inevitable result of our current legal structure.

This very week, President Trump has set off what will probably be another protracted legal battle by undesignated significant fractions of two National Monuments within the state of Utah. Trump cited “abuses of the Antiquities Act,” giving excessive power over land use to “far-away bureaucrats.”

I neither knew this was in the news when I began watching Dinosaur 13, nor did I know the role that the Antiquities Act played within the film. Viewing Dinosaur 13 just became a lot more topical.