AETA Upheld in Appellate Case of Animal Rights Activist Who Released Minks

Wednesday marked the first time a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a conviction under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which was signed into law in 2006. In a 23-page opinion, the Seventh Circuit found the AETA constitutional, ruling against the claims of animal rights activist Kevin Johnson who trespassed with Tyler Lang onto the property of an Illinois farm in 2013 and set 2,000 minks and foxes loose, causing up to $200,000 of physical damage in addition to the cost of the animals and profits.

The AETA is a critical tool for law enforcement as it is the only federal law specifically designed to protect individuals involved in research from threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment and intimidation that place them in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. Since its enactment in 2006, the frequency and severity of illegal actions in the U.S. has decreased significantly.

This appellate case arose after Johnson entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 36 months in prison, but turned to the courts to challenge the AETA arguing that he was being unfairly targeted as an animal rights activist. His challenge was overruled by District Court Judge Amy J. St. Eve in 2015 and the Seventh Circuit came to the same conclusion earlier this week.

The Seventh Circuit Court, in a decision authored by Judge Anne Claire Williams, rejected Johnson’s claim of unfair prosecution stating that “While it may be true that the people most often prosecuted under AETA are animal rights activists, this does not mean the law is vague and is being enforced in a discriminatory manner. Instead, it may simply mean that animal rights activists are the persons who are most often violating the law.”

The Court was also unconvinced by Johnson’s claims that the use of the term “terrorism” in the title of the law was “utterly unreasonable” finding that “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.” In addition, the opinion noted that “It is beyond question that Defendants' conduct of releasing 2,000 minks, destroying their breeding cards, spraying a caustic substance on farm equipment and spray painting ‘Liberation is Love’ on the barn of the mink farm ‘falls squarely in the core of what is prohibited by’ AETA.”

This decision is the latest in a string of legal challenges to the AETA that have been rejected by the Federal Appeals Courts. To read the full story, click here. For more information about NABR’s role in the passage of the AETA and the protections it provides to the biomedical research community, click here.