Undercover Videos on the Farm: Legal Issues
Ohio livetock farms have been a target of animal welfare organizations, evidenced by recent releases of undercover videos taken at Buckeye Veal Services and Conklin Dairy Farm and the broadcast of the "Death on a Factory Farm" documentary. The strategy is to gain employment or access to the farm, videotape without the knowledge or permission of the farm owner, and later release video suggesting that the farm mistreats its livestock. This approach has heightened the visibility of farm animal welfare issues in Ohio, but the strategy and its impacts raise many legal issues. A presentation I recently prepared for the Ohio Agricultural Law Symposium highlights research we're conducting at OSU to identify the legal issues and implications of the undercover video approach. Below is synopsis of a few of the more controversial legal issues.
- Ohio's penalty structure for animal cruelty. At least one animal welfare organization claims that it has targeted Ohio for undercover investigations because Ohio is one of the few remaining states that limits animal cruelty punishment to misdemeanor penalties (with the exception of a repeated offense against "companion animals," which is a fifth degree felony). Most states have adopted a felony penalty structure for acts of animal cruelty, which results in more severe punishment. Ohio legislators have made nearly a dozen attempts to increase penalties for animal cruelty, most recently with H.B. 55 (see our earlier post). The proposals always fail, allegedly due to an effective lobbying effort from groups who argue that penalties for cruelty to animals in Ohio should not be higher than those for abuse of humans. While undercover video releases don't appear to be moving felony penalty legislation forward currently, they could be garnering public support for a future proposal. Should Ohio adopt a felony penalty, and if it does, will undercover investigations find a new state target?
- Duty to report animal abuse. The videographer of the Conklin Dairy Farm video witnessed acts of mistreatment against animals by an employee for approximately one month before the organization released the videos. Many argue that the videographer should have reported the abuse right away, but neither Ohio or any other state has a law requiring an ordinary person to report animal cruelty. Fifteen states have laws mandating that veterinarians report suspected animal cruelty: Ohio does not. Another 13 states have "voluntary" reporting laws for veterinarians, which grant a veterinarian immunity and a waiver of client confidentiality upon reporting abuse, but not Ohio. Ohio does have several mechanisms a person could use to initiate an investigation of suspected animal cruelty through local law enforcement or the county humane society. In a similar vein, should livestock farms have an employment policy requiring employees to report incidents of animal mismanagement and abuse by other employees?
- Who's committing the crime? The person committing the act against an animal is the obvious offender, but what about the videographer and the employer? Circumstances may exist such that the videographer was a legal "accomplice" to the crime. Under Ohio law, a person can be prosecuted as an accomplice if the person solicited another to commit a criminal offense; aided, abetted or conspired with another in committing the offense; or caused an innocent or irresponsible person to commit the offense, and also shared in the intent to commit the crime. Likewise, it may be possible to prove that a videographer acted with "recklessness" by observing and taping the crime or by encouraging and interacting with the offender; recklessness is the required mental state for an animal cruelty violation. As for the employer, Ohio's humane society law clarifies that a conviction of an employee for animal cruelty does not prevent the prosecution of the employer for "allowing a state of facts to exist which will induce cruelty to animals" by the employee.
These are only a few of the issues surfacing from the undercover video strategy. Given the current climate of continued attempts to "out" livestock farmers and push the farm animal welfare issue in Ohio, perhaps it's time we begin finding solutions to the issues.