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Animal Rights organizations have used photographs and video footage of inhumane conditions for years to help spread their message and persuade the general public and political parties on issues related to animal welfare. More recently, groups have been using footage to assist in bringing charges against owners of the companies where the footage was shot. This photographic evidence is often obtained when activists either trespass on the premises or gain entrance under false pretenses, like gaining employment without disclosing affiliations with animal rights groups. When these cases come to trial, they often implicate other issues, such as the admissibility of photographs in trials and fourth amendment search and seizure rights. They also raise questions about why animals are not better protected by the inspection schemes included in most agricultural regulation laws.
In several recent cases, animal rights activists have personally documented conditions at farms and companies, and their documentation has been the catalyst for further investigation and criminal charges. Their documentation has also been used in several cases as evidence against the defendant. Photographs are often admitted into criminal trials as evidence. Judges will usually admit photographs if it can be proven that they accurately show the way things were at the crime scene and if they will be helpful to the jury when they are making their decision. Sometimes photographs will show things that are violent or upsetting and will make the jury emotional, but they are often still admitted as long as they are accurate and will help the jury reach a verdict.
But why do activists feel the need to act on their own in order to obtain this kind of evidence? Even though most agricultural farms are subject to some sort of government regulation, which often includes inspections, these are often not implemented regularly or effectively. In addition, it can sometimes be difficult for public officials to gather evidence against agricultural farm owners because they are protected by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which says that public officials may not make unreasonable search and seizures of private property. Police usually need a warrant to enter private property and gather physical or photographic evidence. There are exceptions to the fourth amendment that are sometimes applicable in animal rights cases, such as when objects or animals are in “plain view” or when there are “exigent circumstances.” Evidence gathered by private citizens however, like animal activists, is not subject to the same regulations.
In response to what some politicians see as a trend toward extremism in the name of protecting animals, Congress and several states have passed, or are currently considering passing, legislation setting harsher penalties for those involved in what has now been coined “ecoterrorism.” Many of these laws have come under attack both for their constitutionality and their far reaching effects. One model act includes a section which makes it a felony to enter an animal or research facility to take pictures or video if the actor’s intent is to defame the facility or its owner. Other legislation would implement a terrorist registry and make it a felony to donate money to animal organizations that perform certain acts, regardless of whether the donor had any specific knowledge of the group’s actions.
This legislative response only reflects a broader drift toward characterizing animal rights activists as terrorists. The FBI has listed animal rights groups like the Animal Liberation Front as serious threats to the nation’s security.
While few people would support acts of violence or serious sabotage in the name of animal welfare, it seems important to consider why activists feel compelled to commit less serious crimes, like trespassing, in order to obtain photographs of conditions, and why there are not better systems in place to monitor the welfare of animals. In this day and age, terrorism is on everyone’s mind, but due to the weight of the word and the connotations associated with it, terrorism should be saved for appropriate circumstances. Trespass, no matter what the intention is of the trespasser, should rarely rise to the level of terrorism.
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See the Detailed Discussion of the Rise of Ecoterrorism for an in-depth legal analysis.