The Seventh Circuit on Wednesday affirmed a federal judge’s decision to keep alive charges against two men that were brought under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act over allegedly freeing 2,000 minks and vandalizing a mink farm, rejecting arguments that the statute Improperly labels nonviolent actors as terrorists.
A unanimous three-judge panel found that AETA doesn’t violate the First Amendment rights of defendants Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang, because the statute doesn’t prohibit advocacy that doesn’t destroy property. The panel also rejected arguments AETA is vague or overly broad, finding that the law does not encourage discriminatory prosecutions. Additionally, the panel rejected arguments that it is irrational to include the word ‘terrorism” in the law.
“Given the serious harms the statute was trying to address, including arson, bombing, and death threats, it was in no way arbitrary or unreasonable for Congress to Include the word ‘terrorism’ In the non-codified title of AETA,” the panel said.
The charges go back to August 2013, when Johnson and Lang traveled from Los Angeles to a mink farm in Morris, Illinois, which bred and sold minks to fur makers. When they arrived, the duo released approximately 2,000 minks from their cages and removed portions of the fence surrounding the farm to help the minks escape. They also destroyed the minks’ breeding cards, which are needed to sell the minks; poured caustic substances on two farm vehicles, and spray-painted the wards ‘Liberation is Love” on a barn. Federal prosecutors allege the vandalism caused between $120,000 and $200,000 worth of damage.
The pair then headed to a fox farm in a nearby town to wreak similar havoc, but law enforcement arrested them before they arrived. Johnson and Lang were charged and convicted in state court with possession of burglary tools. Johnson was then sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment and Lang was sentenced to 30 months’ conditional discharge, according to court documents.
But in July 2014, federal prosecutors lobbed two additional criminal charges against Johnson and Lang under AETA. The government claims the pair violated AETA by conspiring to travel in interstate commerce for the purpose of damaging and interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.
Johnson and Lang asked the court to dismiss the indictment, arguing that AETA is unconstitutionally overbroad because it criminalizes speech and expressive conduct. They also argued that AETA is so broad that it invites discriminatory prosecutions and by labeling them ‘terrorists’ and that AETA violated the due process rights of those who have committed nonviolent property crimes for the purpose of damaging an animal enterprise.
The pair argued that being convicted for destruction of property under a statute with the word `terrorism” in it is akin to requiring a person who is convicted of kidnapping a child to register as a sex offender, even if the person did not commit sexual assault.
The district court rejected their arguments, and the pair entered guilty pleas under the condition that they were allowed to appeal the district court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss to the Seventh Circuit, which they did.
But on Wednesday, the panel found that the district judge got it right when he refused to toss the charges, and noted that having the word “terrorism” in the title of the statute does not violate Johnson and Lang’s substantive due process rights, since Congress had a rational basis for using the word.
Those convicted under the statute aren’t put on a list, or placed in a segregated prison unit, the panel said. The only impact of having the word “terrorism” in the non-codified title of AETA is that a person convicted under the statute will have a government counterterrorism employee review his or her case, the panel said.
Also, the panel said Congress’ decision to include the word “terrorism” in the statute wasn’t arbitrary since Congress explicitly explained that AETA was being enacted because of an increase in the number and severity of criminal acts and intimidation against those engaged in animal enterprises.
“Congress was concerned about actions by extremists such as arson and bombings,” the panel said. “Both of those crimes involve the destruction of property and are extremely violent.”
Representatives for the government and counsel for Johnson and Lang didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment.
The case is the U.S. v. Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang, case numbers 16-1459 and 16-1694, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
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