Iron County Prosecutors Drop Ag-gag Charges, Law Examined

Utah ag-gag charges dropped

Photo: Matthias M/Wikimedia Commons

Four animal activists who were allegedly on private property at a hog farm in Iron County in September have been released from charges of Utah’s agricultural interference law, also known as an ag-gag law. The activists will still face criminal trespass charges, and many are wondering when it comes to ag-gag laws, why trespassing charges aren’t sufficient and exactly who these other laws are protecting. In the case of many animal rights activists, they believe it’s not necessarily who is being protected but a certain type of misbehavior that is being protected.

Ag-gag in Iron County

The four activists from California and Maryland were members of a group known as the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the hog farm was Circle Four Farms, a part of Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of the world’s largest pork producer. According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the attorney for the activists, T. Matthew Phillips, stated that the four wanted to document the pigs’ journey from the farm to a California slaughterhouse.

According to the FARM website, they are a nonprofit group that is “working to end the use of animals as food through public education and grassroots activism.” While they claim that most of their programs are aimed at engaging “likely target audiences … and [nudging] them along the vegan path,” they also state that “[o]ccasionally, we seek to capture media attention through dramatic displays.”

Attorney Phillips says the Circle Four Farms incident was not one of these examples of “dramatic display.” In fact, he states that the four were actually on a public roadway and were only capturing images of farm buildings, not of the workers or animals.

However, the wording of Utah’s ag-gag law 76-6-112 states that a person is guilty of agricultural interference if they knowingly or intentionally record “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” without the consent of the owner. The law specifies several acts that are prohibited, including leaving a recording a device on the premises, obtaining a job under false pretenses to record activity, recording activity as a regular employee of the facility, or trespassing on private property to get such images or sounds.

Given the fact that Iron County prosecutors are still charging the four activists with criminal trespass, they must differ with Phillips, however, Circle Four Farms stated that they didn’t wish to pursue the agricultural interference charges.

Ag-gag Under the Microscope and Put on Trial

Utah Rep. John G. Mathis (R-Vernal) sponsored HB 187 in 2012. The bill went through two revisions before being ultimately approved. According to an article in Deseret News, Mathis claimed the reason for sponsoring this bill was that he wanted to put an end to “animal-rights terrorists” out to destroy the agricultural industry. He was quoted as saying that animal protection groups such as FARM and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were using these investigations as propaganda to promote their own organizations, especially in fundraising efforts.

Opposition to the ag-gag laws—which are currently on the books in five other states—say these laws are violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They state that the First Amendment protecting free speech and press has specifically led to reform in the food industry in the past, citing such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which was pivotal in leading the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

If convicted of criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor per Utah Criminal Code 76-6-206, the four activists could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Of the six states with ag-gag laws, only one other person has been charged with violation of the law. In February of 2013, Amy Meyer was charged for videotaping the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper. However, charges against her were also dropped, with the reasoning cited as either public outcry or the fact that Meyer’s video footage showed that she was on public property at the time of her filming.

On a larger scale, in July of 2013, two national nonprofit organizations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and PETA, filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah challenging the ag-gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Attorneys for the state attempted to argue that the case should be thrown out, however, according to an August 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has refused.

Even though he didn’t dismiss the case, Shelby has said that at this point, the plaintiffs have failed to show how the statute has resulted in past injury as no one is currently being prosecuted under the statute or how it will cause future injury, but the case will still have its proverbial day in court which means it will have to stand up to further public scrutiny.

New Public Enemy No. 1 Warrant Includes Attempted Murder, Other Charges

Attempted murder charges for Public Enemy No. 1

Photo: Unified Police Department Metro Gang Unit/KSL News

The Salt Lake City Metro Gang Unit named a new Public Enemy No. 1 on Friday, Jan. 16. The warrant for his arrest includes charges of attempted murder and felony discharge of a weapon. Currently an adult, the man has a juvenile record as well.

Not His First Charges

According to a report from KSL News, the state has issued a $50,000 warrant for Michael Steven Bonilla, 19, a member of a violent street gang. The warrant includes “six counts of attempted murder and four counts of felony discharge of a weapon.”

While investigators have said that Bonilla has been arrested as a result of assault and drug-related charges in the past, it is unclear if these counts relate to those charges. In 2013, when Bonilla was 17, he was arrested and charged with the same counts of attempted murder and discharge of a weapon with gang enhancements, as well as obstructing justice. This was in relation to a drive-by shooting in Kearns. Even though the numbers of that incident match the numbers on the current warrant, the report didn’t state if the warrant stemmed from the same incident.

What is clear is that Bonilla is currently at-large. Police have described him as being 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing approximately 150 pounds, with brown eyes and hair and the number “801” tattooed on the back of his head.

The Metro Gang Unit said anyone with information should contact them through the Unified Police Department at (801) 743-7000 and their calls will remain anonymous.

Attempted Murder Almost as Serious as Aggravated Murder

According to Utah Code 76-4-102, attempted murder is considered an inchoate offense, meaning a crime of preparing for or seeking to commit another crime. The attempt to commit aggravated murder, resulting in serious bodily injury, is punishable by a prison sentence of no fewer than 15 years and potentially life.

In contrast to attempted murder, the act of aggravated murder is punishable by life in prison without parole, or no less than 25 years.

Either way, these are very serious charges. If you or someone you know has been charged with attempted murder, make sure to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney either for legal advice or to handle your case and look out for your best interests.

Man Arrested for DUI After Hitting Sheriff’s Vehicle

DUI charges

Photo: Weber County Sheriff’s Office/KSL News

Icy roads were to blame for many accidents on Saturday, Jan. 10, but it was driving under the influence (DUI) that landed one man in jail. Other charges included drug possession and leaving the scene of an accident.

“Wrong Place at the Wrong Time” Doesn’t Mean You can Leave

According to a report from KSL News, on Saturday evening, Weber County Sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene of several accidents in Ogden Canyon near 4500 East, just east of the Pineview Reservoir spillway. Four vehicles had slid off the road due primarily to the icy conditions (the DUI would come shortly). Fortunately only minor injuries were reported, however, deputies were on the scene to shut down State Route 39 while road crews could put down salt and sand.

At approximately 10:40 p.m., one deputy had his patrol pickup truck parked with his overhead flashers on to stop oncoming traffic when another pickup truck came around a corner at high speed, lost control, and crashed into the back of the deputy’s vehicle. The driver of the truck sped off, and the deputy was able to pursue in the damaged vehicle, catching him near the spillway.

The driver of the truck, Bruce Southwick, was arrested for investigation of DUI, drug possession, and leaving the scene of an accident.

DUI Severity Depends on Circumstances

While most people think of a DUI as referring to alcohol, according to Utah Code 41-6a-502, a person is guilty of a DUI if he/she is driving “under the influence of alcohol, any drug, or the combined influence of alcohol and any drug to a degree that renders the person incapable of safely operating a vehicle.” Given the fact that Southwick also was charged for drug possession, this is probably the case.

The lowest charge for a DUI is a class B misdemeanor, even on a second offense. It goes up to a class A misdemeanor if the driver inflicts “bodily injury” on another, had a passenger under 16 years of age, or was 21 years of age or older with a passenger under 18 years of age. The charge jumps to a third degree felony if the driver inflicts “serious bodily injury” or has two or more prior convictions within ten years.

Even the lowest charge of a class B misdemeanor can result in jail time of up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI, don’t leave your defense in the hands of a public defender. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will have your best interests in mind.