A bill currently before the Utah Legislature would narrow the scope of legal defenses available to people accused of theft for removing injured or sick livestock from farms and ranches.
As introduced by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, HB114 would amend state statutes to prevent defendants accused of theft from using the defense they removed livestock because the animals were sick, injured or were a liability to the owner. The bill would only apply to livestock, not dogs or other domestic pets.
Albrecht’s bill, which cleared the House last Friday by a 65-4 vote, is a direct response to a Washington County jury’s unanimous decision in St. George’s 5th District Court in October to acquit two animal-rights activists of all charges brought against them for removing two sick piglets from Circle Four Farms in 2017.
Wayne Hsiung and co-defendant Paul Picklesimer, members of San Francisco-based Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), were part of a group of five activists accused of breaking into Circle Four Farms in Milford and stealing two pigs.
Three of the five accepted plea deals, but Hsiung and Picklesimer went to trial, facing theft and burglary counts that could have landed them in jail for five and a half years. In their not guilty verdict, members of the jury ruled the two men did not take anything of value, one of the elements prosecutors needed to prove for the theft and burglary charges to stick.
Hsiung admitted entering the farm with cameraman Picklesimer, who was filming to document abuses they might find with the pigs. He further admitted to taking the two piglets but argued it wasn’t theft because the livestock were too sickly to represent anything of value to their corporate owner.
Albrecht, who had the bill drafted and sponsored it in the House at the behest of the Beaver County commissioners, characterizes DxE’s actions on the farm owned by Smithfield Farms as a publicity stunt and said the jury got the verdict wrong.
“I’m very concerned about the precedent this sets for all of rural Utah and agriculture,” he said. “I know [activists] don’t like places like Smithfield Foods where they raise a lot of livestock. But this sets a precedent that activists can come on anybody’s farm or ranch and search their bar or corrals or sheds for sick animals to promote their cause. So we are just trying to strengthen the existing statute.”
Lynn Carlson, a St. George structural engineer who was a juror at the trial, argues otherwise. He calls the bill an affront to the jurors who considered all the evidence at the trial and ruled appropriately in the defendants’ favor.
“These guys didn’t take anything of value. The prosecution did a poor job of trying to get their point across during the trial,” he said. “And now they are introducing this bill because they didn’t get the verdict that they wanted.”
Instead of trying to get a burglary and theft conviction to make an example of the activists, Carlson added, the prosecution should have been content with charging them with trespassing, a lesser misdemeanor. In an op-ed Wednesday in The Salt Lake Tribune, Carlson asserted that by fast-tracking HB114, legislators were usurping the “proper role a jury plays” in the nation’s judicial system.
“Juries should be well-informed and have all relevant facts presented to them for evaluation. Defendants should have the right to present reasonable defenses to their alleged crimes,” he wrote. “This bill is a reckless and impulsive reaction by politicians who are clearly re-writing the law to appease Smithfield and the powerful agriculture lobby in Utah.”
DxE lead organizer Almira Tanner also blasted HB114.
“This anti-rescue bill goes against the will of Utah residents as evidenced by a Utah jury’s unanimous acquittal last October of two animal activists who rescued sick and injured piglets from a Smithfield factory farm,” she said in a prepared statement. “Instead of taking action to end animal cruelty at these facilities, the legislature has made it incredibly clear that they care way more about protecting corporate profits and enabling animal abuse than they do about protecting the vulnerable and those who try to help them.”
Tanner’s statement was echoed by Hsiung, co-founder of DxE who now serves as an adviser to the organization.
“I’ve talked to a number of lawyers and criminal law scholars about the bill, all of whom have concluded this is a pretty unfortunate example of corporate influence on our legal system,” he said. “Smithfield Foods is a multibillion-dollar corporation [with] … its parent corporation headquartered in China. It was founded by one of China’s largest billionaires. You wouldn’t think a corporation like this would be able to rewrite the criminal laws in our country, but that is what is happening.”
Hsiung said the piglets, by the prosecution’s own estimate, were worth about $40 apiece, much less than the cost of treating the animals, assuming farm officials were inclined to do so.
“The jury concluded that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof and that this was not a crime — certainly not a crime to justify the incredibly zealous usage of taxpayer resources for many years to prosecute,” he added.
Beaver County Attorney Von Christiansen, the prosecutor in the case, admitted he probably erred in not charging Hsiung and Picklesimer with trespassing, but added he did not err in charging the pair with burglary and theft.
“It is a crime to enter a dwelling and to steal property. That’s a burglary,” he said. “It is a crime to take something that doesn’t belong to you. That’s theft.”
Christiansen said he takes exception to the jury’s finding that Hsiung did not take anything of value. He said due to the costs of raising and feeding livestock, every animal is initially not an asset to a farmer or rancher until it is taken to market.
“What this bill hopes to do is to make it clear that it doesn’t matter if the animal may be a liability to the owner,” he said. “If it is sick or injured, that doesn’t matter. It is still the property of the owner.”
HB114 is currently in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Albrecht expressed confidence the bill will make it out of committee and be approved shortly by the full Senate. Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.