While Gov. Bill Haslam weighs his options regarding legislation sitting on his desk that opponents have dubbed the “Ag Gag” bill, the chorus of condemnation continues to grow.
Earlier this week two prominent Tennessee crime-fighters told TNReport they have concerns about the bill from a policing standpoint. The state’s longest serving district attorney as well as the president of the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association are saying the legislation is flawed to such degree that enforcement and prosecutions would be problematic if it becomes law.
The bill, sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, requires anyone “who intentionally” films or photographs animal abuse “for the purpose of documenting the offense” to hand the material over to law enforcement within 48 hours.
It passed handily in the Senate, but by only one vote in the House of Representatives. Both chambers are dominated by the GOP. The governor is also a Republican.
District Attorney General Tommy Thompson, Jr. of the 15th Judicial District called the legislation “an obstruction to justice.”
“This bill is more an industry protection act. It’s a way to prevent people from finding out, because you have to get the trust of the people who are doing it,” said Thompson, a Democrat who for 36 years has served as chief criminal prosecutor for Wilson, Trousdale, Smith, Macon and Jackson counties.
“The people who are doing it are smarter with the law than a lot of the people who are enforcing it,” he added. “They aren’t going to do anything where you can see them until you gain their trust.”
However, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Farm Bureau, which supports the legislation, told TNReport the measure has been unfairly characterized by media and opponents.
Noting that the bill was initially titled the “Livestock Protection Act” by one of the sponsors, Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Rhedona Rose said the purpose and intent of it is to protect the animals and stop the abuse of the animals. Calling it “Ag Gag” misrepresents what the bill in fact does, she said, which is require people who knowingly witness and record animal abuse to promptly report it to law enforcement officials who can then take steps to stop it immediately.
Rose also pointed to Tennessee’s relatively high score on an Animal Legal Defense Fund assessment of all 50 states’ laws relating to animal treatment as evidence of “how strong we are in dealing with animal abusers.”
“I think the farm community is very frustrated that because of a few bad actors, the entire agriculture farm community is getting a black eye,” Rose said. “They are ready to deal with those who are in fact causing that image and feel like that folks that have proof of that image and knowingly and intentionally go out and capture the proof of that image, they could get it to law enforcement to be dealt with quickly.”
Nevertheless, vocal opponents of the measure, including Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and House Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Lynn, have said the bill seems more like a thinly veiled effort to stifle the activities of animal rights activists — that the legislation would in effect “gag” them in the interest of protecting ag and livestock producers.
Thompson, the district attorney, said putting together enough evidence for a prosecution to occur would in fact require more than just one recorded instance of animal abuse. He compared the undercover operations of documenting animal abuse to undercover drug operations.
“If the drug task force had to report their buys within two days, first of all, you would never have enough informants who could get in like that,” he said. “Secondly, if you have to report within two days, the person comes to court and says, ‘That was just the first time I ever did it. I made a mistake. I’m sorry,’ and he may be the biggest drug dealer in town.”
Thompson, who also raises cattle, said the drug task force always tries to do three or four buys from a dealer so they can’t claim it was a casual sale when they come to court.
“You can’t just stand there and take pictures in two days,” said Thompson. “You have to work awhile and let them trust you before you get in position to where the real abuse is going on.”
Thompson added that the bill “doesn’t really have any teeth to it, because anything that is a Class C misdemeanor by fine only gets moved to the bottom of the priority list for law enforcement. There’s so much more important stuff going on.”
Putnam County Sheriff David K. Andrews pretty much agreed with Thompson that the bill has no real teeth and that capturing a one-time incident is basically futile.
“There’s no jail time to it. If a judge issues a pick-up on someone, law enforcement is going to make an effort to pick that person up. But then when you pick him up, what do you do with him?” said Andrews, who last summer was elected to lead the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association.
“If he can’t pay it and won’t pay it, what are you going to do? You can’t put him in jail.”
While the Sheriff’s Association has not taken an official active role in the legislation, Andrews said he used to work undercover and that if you buy drugs from someone just one time, “you might as well not go to court.
“They’re going to say, ‘Well, judge, I really just done this the one time. I was coerced or this or that.’ It sort of takes the teeth out of your prosecution,” Andrews said.
The governor is awaiting an opinion on the bill’s constitutionality from the state attorney general before deciding whether to signs it, veto it or let it become law without is endorsement.
Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.