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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ind. Law - "Bill seeks to bar trespassing on agricultural property"

SB 101, the ag-gag bill, is being heard in Senate Committee this morning. Here are some quotes from a long story yesterday by Rachael Bunn in the $$ Bloomington Herald-Times:

“Ag-gag” is back in Indiana.

On the first day of the Indiana General Assembly, a new bill, Senate Bill 101, was filed, setting the stage for a debate about trespassing and First Amendment rights.

The bill allows agricultural operations to post signs that prohibit acts that could compromise operations or trade secrets and would make it a Level 6 felony if someone commits an act prohibited by the posting. It expands the criminal trespass statute and raises the penalty for criminal trespass that causes a monetary loss. A Level 6 felony is punishable by a term of six to 30 months in jail. The bill is similar to one proposed in 2013. * * *

“This is a trespass bill, and so enhanced trespass is a more accurate title of the bill,” said Amy Cornell, public policy adviser and counsel for the Indiana Farm Bureau. The farm bureau supported a previous bill in the Legislature and supports legislation protecting agricultural business from trespassing.

Trespassing is an issue on Indiana farms, from something as small as grabbing an apple from a tree in an orchard to planting ropes and spikes among corn fields to purposely damage farm equipment.

“It is a big problem for farmers in Indiana, and it’s a problem across all sectors,” Cornell said. “There’s a mentality that you can go out into the country and do whatever you want, but that land is owned by someone.” * * *

Most of the bills follow a similar mold, based on the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act; part of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “model legislation” that the conservative policy group circulates to lobbyist and lawmakers. The ALEC act was drafted in 2002.

A similar bill in the Indiana Legislature died at the last minute in 2013. It was withdrawn after a lengthy debate and criticism of the broadness of the criminal charges.

“This version of the bill is actually, if anything, worse than the first version,” said Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington. Stoops sits on the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee where the bill has been referred. “It creates this almost second protected class in the agriculture industry.”

The original language of the bill allows businesses to define what is illegal or prohibited on their properties; a concern by environmental and media that whistleblowers and media could be targeted to protect illegal or distasteful practices.

Environmental and media groups have already spoken out against the bill, which Stoops calls unconstitutional. There are also concerns about the severity of the punishment.

“To me, it’s a concern that agriculture businesses are having problems with vandalism, but this bill goes way beyond that,” Stoops said.

“We already have laws in place that protect people from trespassing, that protect from defamation and libel,” he continued. “There’s really no reason for this.” * * *

Even though bills like this are aimed at protecting larger businesses, Lindy Miller, Greene County extension director and extension educator for agriculture and natural resources, has had his own farm vandalized, and knows other farmers that have faced similar damages.

“You try to figure out what the best reactions are and the first thing you think, you want to throw these people in jail,” Miller said.

He’s not convinced of a need for legislation, though. There is a lot of misinformation about agriculture businesses and a misperception that they all engage in illegal activities. The same is true for environmental activists.

“What it amounts to are two completely different perspectives that aren’t educated,” Miller said. “It may not be the best thing to sneak into a guy’s house, but it’s also not the best thing to lock people out.”

In his view, letting activists come visit farms and educating them about the farming process, particularly animal slaughter for food, would be beneficial for all involved.

“I always tell people: Nothing loses its life without a struggle,” Miller said. “But when you think about it, these animals are in service to mankind, and there’s not greater service than to feed the hungry and poor.”

Education is the key to any debate, and Miller thinks there has been a lack of it between the two groups so far. Adding restrictive legislation to the mix does not give hope for any improvement.

“The whole society’s gotten polar – politics is polar – society’s just gotten more polar, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Miller said.

A quote from an editorial Jan. 11th in the Richmond Palladium-Item (originally in the Muncie Star-Press):
egislators wasted no time getting to business on unneeded legislation that likely violates the First Amendment.

Case in point: the return of the so-called “ag gag” bill, once again introduced by state Sen. Travis Holdman of Markle. His bill creates a new kind of crime, “agriculture mischief.” Unlike last year’s version that prohibited photographing or videotaping farming activity, this year’s version is a name-your-own-crime bill that allows farmers to prohibit any kind of activity that might cause monetary damage to a farm.

Talk about conferring special rights to a protected group. Ridiculous.

The genesis of this bill comes courtesy of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which distributes model legislation. Similar bills unfortunately have been enacted in other states.

The gist of this bill, SB101, now referred to the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, is to punish whistleblowers who discover unscrupulous practices such as cruel treatment of animals or health violations. It’s designed to protect the big agriculture concerns and confer a special set of protections because the ag industry has the financial clout to impose its will. Name any other industry that can define what it considers to be a felony. This bill confers that “right.”

Violators of these user-defined crimes would be considered to have committed a Level 6 felony, punishable by a term of six to 30 months behind bars.

There already are laws on the books to protect agriculture and every other business. There are trespassing, privacy and libel laws that offer protection against someone wandering onto property uninvited. Farm employees and visitors can be required to sign waivers prohibiting them from photographing or recording what they see. There are plenty of avenues to land violators of existing laws in court.

At the core of the matter, this legislation is not just about intimidating the media, it’s about intimidating anyone who sees something suspicious or awry. It’s enough to make one wonder what’s really up down on the farm.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 14, 2014 08:43 AM
Posted to Indiana Law