Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

DA, Sheriff Criticize Animal-Cruelty Reporting Measure

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, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

Business and Economy Featured NewsTracker

Feds’ Decision to Scrap New Child Farmworker Restrictions Welcomed by Ag Interests

Tennessee farmers are breathing a sigh of relief after the Obama administration retreated from a proposal to restrict the kinds of agriculture-related jobs people under the age of 18 can legally perform in America.

Rhedona Rose, executive vice president for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, said rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor last summer seeking to ban, for example, children younger than 16 from being employed to operate certain mechanized farm equipment, like tractors and hay balers, drew significant opposition across Tennessee.

“We received more comments on this issue last fall than anything else we were dealing with,” said Rose. “We were very, very pleased last week when we heard that the president and the U.S. Department of Labor decided to back away from these proposed rules.”

In fact, the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged it was inundated with complaints from across the country’s countrysides. It announced Friday it would no longer pursue the changes, saying the decision was “made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms,” according to a department press release.

“To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration,” the statement read.

Tennessee state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, sponsored legislation earlier this year that prohibited state and local government entities in Tennessee from facilitating or helping enforce any new federal rules limiting the kind of work kids can do on the farm.

The legislation, HB2669, passed the House 70-24-1 and the Senate 28-0. It was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam April 16.

Faison said Tennessee farmers and legislators who voted in favor of his measure deserve credit for encouraging Washington to rethink a misguided policy.

“I feel like this is one time that government got it right,” said Faison. “Many states, not just ours, and farmers all across America, stood up and said, ‘Listen, this isn’t okay.’”

The proposed rules were backed by organized labor and progressive advocacy groups, which argued some farm work is too dangerous for underage employees, as evidenced by it having the highest rates of injury and death for young people in the workforce.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said back in August when the new rules were unveiled. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”

Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a group at the forefront of the push for stricter regulations, blasted the Obama administration for caving to pressure from agriculture groups and hysteria orchestrated by the president’s political opponents. “There was tremendous heat, and I don’t think it helped that it was an election year,” Maki told the Washington Post after the labor department’s decision was announced last week. “A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue.”

Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, said in a statement Monday that “agriculture is by far the most dangerous industry that large numbers of teens are allowed to work in.”

“Nearly 100 kids are killed on farms each year,” she continued. “The Department of Labor’s sensible recommendations — based on years of research indicating the jobs in which teen injuries and deaths occur — sought to protect these hired farmworkers. Unfortunately, the proposed rules fell victim to misinformation and exaggeration from the farm lobby.”

The Tennessee Farm Bureau’s Rose said that while there’s no doubt farm work can indeed be dangerous, kids who grow up working on farms tend to take lessons about the importance of safety to heart. She said farm-oriented organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America are always trying to improve how they teach kids about the fundamental importance of safety around dangerous crop- and livestock-production operations.

“Anytime you’re working around agriculture, you have to be very, very aware of the dangers around you, whether you’re a child or an adult,” Rose said. “But I think most children who grow up on a farm have a better sense of danger, and a better sense of what to be careful around than, oftentimes, children who are not exposed to those types of jobs.”

She added that most people who live and work in rural areas believe the lifestyle builds a strong work ethic and sense of self-reliance that will help a young person become a responsible, capable adult.

“I daresay that most adults today who had an opportunity to work on a farm when they were younger would cite the experiences of working on a farm to building them into the type of person, the type of adult that they are today, and they feel good about those experiences,” said Rose.