BOISE, Idaho––Idaho Dairymen’s Association lawyer Daniel Steenson was blunt in an April 2014 petition filed to seek court permission to help defend the newly passed state “ag-gag” statute.
Wrote Steenson, “Without the protection the statute provides, Idaho Dairymen’s Association members will again be targeted for clandestine infiltration by individuals masquerading as employees to gather evidence to be used against them in criminal prosecutions, media persecutions, and economic sabotage.”
In other words, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association wants members to be able to violate humane standards in pursuit of their $2.5-billion-a-year industry without fear of being called to account.
Signed into law by Idaho governor and rancher Butch Otter on February 25, 2014, the ag-gag statute “says people caught surreptitiously filming agricultural operations face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. By comparison, a first animal cruelty offense is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000,” reported Rebecca Boone of Associated Press.
The Idaho ag-gag law was immediately challenged in federal court as an alleged violation of First Amendment rights by a coalition of animal rights and human rights advocates including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, the Center for Food Safety, Farm Sanctuary, River’s Wish Animal Sanctuary, Western Watersheds Project, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research & Education, CounterPunch, Farm Forward, and individual plaintiffs Will Potter, James McWilliams, Monte Hickman, Blair Koch and Daniel Hauff.
A similar coalition is pursuing a comparable case against a Utah “ag-gag” law passed in 2012. Ag-gag laws are also on the books in Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, and Missouri, and have been introduced into the legislatures of at least 15 other states in recent years, at urging of the pro-industry American Legislative Exchange Council.
Prosecution attempts dropped
The first attempted prosecution for alleged violation of an ag-gag law known to ANIMALS 24-7 was filed in February 2013 in Draper, Utah, against Amy Meyer, 25, who was not affiliated with any national animal advocacy organization. Meyer had 11 days earlier used her cell phone while standing on a public sidewalk to document conditions at the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Company.
A Smith & Sons employee called police, claiming Meyer and another woman were seen on company property, inside the fence. But the police found only Meyer, and found no evidence that she had climbed over or through the fence.
Pending for nine weeks, the case against Meyer was dropped on April 30, 2013, just 24 hours after it was exposed by Idaho plaintiff Will Potter in his blog Green is the New Red and by Jim Dalrymple II of the Salt Lake Tribune.
The second known attempt to prosecute video exposure of livestock abuse was dropped in January 2014 when the district attorney’s office in Weld County, Colorado decided not to prosecute Compassion Over Killing undercover investigator Taylor Radig.
Radig was cited in November 2013 not for purportedly violating an ag-gag law, but as a possible accessory to animal cruelty after she videotaped alleged abuses at the Quanah Cattle Company, near Kersey, between July and September 2013. Compassion Over Killing did not provide the evidence to the Weld County sheriff’s office until November 15, 2013.
The Weld District Attorney’s Office five days later charged Quanah workers Ernesto Daniel Valenzuela-Alvarez, 34, Tomas Cerda, 33, and Larry Loma, 32, with misdemeanor animal abuse for allegedly kicking, dragging, and throwing young calves. Valenzuela-Alvarez and Cerda pleaded guilty on February 25, 2014, with Loma’s case pending.
Momentum toward the passage of the Idaho ag-gag law built in industry response to public revulsion after a Mercy for Animals undercover video brought the January 16, 2013 criminal conviction in Twin Falls, Idaho, of Bettencourt Dairies worker Jesus Garza. Garza, who pleaded guilty to cruelty, was reportedly videotaped in the act of beating, kicking, and jumping on cows at the Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho, one of the 13 farms belonging to Luis Bettencourt.
Bettencourt manager Jose Acensio and worker Javier Rojas-Loayza were also charged in the case, but have not been apprehended.
Bettencourt dismissed five employees as result of the video, instituted training for workers in humane cattle handling, and installed a closed circuit video system to enable management to better monitor conditions in the company barns.
“Following the undercover investigation, conducted in July and August of 2012, Mercy for Animals immediately alerted authorities and presented a detailed legal petition and evidence of violations of Idaho’s anti-cruelty laws to the Idaho Department of Agriculture,” said Mercy for Animals spokesperson Gary Smith.
Another Mercy for Animals undercover probe on February 13, 2014 brought misdemeanor cruelty charges against four employees at Wiese Brothers Farm, of Greenleaf, Wisconsin. Abelardo Jaimes, 31, Lucia Martinez, 39, Misael Monge-Minero, 33, and Crescencio Pineda, 26, each face maximum penalities of up to nine months in prison or fines of $10,000 fines on each count of mistreating animals.
Jaimes and Martinez entered “no contest” pleas on April 22, 2014. Pineda and Monge-Minero were to go to court on May 5 and May 6, respectively.
King amendment failed
As well as pushing ag-gag bills in 13 states in 2013, agribusiness had hoped to win passage of an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill introduced by Representative Steve King of Iowa, which in effect would have erased all state and local laws protecting farmed animals. The King amendment was not stripped from the House version of the Farm Bill until January 27, 2014, ten days before the long-delayed Farm Bill finally cleared both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on February 7, 2014.
Assessed the American SPCA, “King aimed to nix state laws protecting farm animals, but the measure was so broadly written that it could have preempted laws covering everything from child labor to dangerous pesticides to labeling of farm-raised fish and standards for fire-safe cigarettes.”
Opposing the King amendment were the National Conference of State Legislatures, County Executives of America, Fraternal Order of Police, National Sheriffs’ Association, Iowa Farmers Union, Safe Food Coalition, and more than 500 other organizations, news media, legal experts, and public officials.