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.

“We Wanted Them to Live in Fear”: Animal Rights Activist Admits to Bombing

Rodney Coronado, once an activist for the Animal Liberation Front, last week admitted to the Lansing State Journal that he was behind the 1992 bombing of the office of a Michigan State University animal science professor. Richard Aulerich, who was specifically targeted, was studying environmental impacts on mink reproduction. Coronado targeted Aulerich’s laboratory because he thought the study was being supported by the fur industry. “I won’t sugar coat it,” he said to the State Journal. “We were about psychological warfare. We wanted researchers like Aulerich never to know when they came to work and opened their office door whether there had been an attack. We wanted them to live in fear.”

According to the article, Coronado fled after the attack and was on the run for over a year. Police eventually caught up with him and he agreed to plead guilty to aiding and abetting arson in exchange for having several other charges dropped. He spent over four years in prison.

Coronado’s bomb destroyed decades of research and caused over $1 million in damages.

This bombing happened fourteen years before enactment of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006. To read recent news coverage about Coronado and the Michigan State bombing, please click here.

Animal Extremist Sentenced for Violating the AETA

As we reported on January 4, Nicole Kissane pled guilty to the charge of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Yesterday she was sentenced to 21 months in prison and $423,000 in restitution. Her accomplice, Joseph Buddenberg, was sentenced in May of last year to two years in federal prison and to $398,272 in restitution payments.

The two were arrested in July 2014 for their involvement in a months-long campaign of animal extremism by vandalizing property and illegally releasing mink from farms in five separate states.

In 2008, Buddenberg was charged in California for alleged illegal activity against researchers, but the charges were dropped two years later.

Found to be constitutional by numerous federal courts, enforcement of the AETA has been an effective law in deterring campaigns of violence against biomedical researchers, their families, and their institutions.

Another Extremist Reaches Plea Deal in AETA Case

Last week Nicole Kissane pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). She joins codefendant Joseph Buddenberg who pleaded guilty to the same charge last year in connection to a campaign of animal extremism against the fur industry.

Kissane and Buddenberg were arrested in July 2014 for their participation in a cross-country campaign of vandalism against the fur industry which included the release of mink from farms. Their months-long crime spree covered 40,000 miles of travel over five states. A Newsweek article, Animal Activists Are Shouting out Their Crimes Online, gives more background on Buddenberg and Kissane, as well as other extremists boasting about their actions anonymously. Buddenberg once faced charges in California for alleged illegal activity against researchers in 2008 but they were dismissed in 2010.

According to news coverage by ABC News, it is expected that prosecutors will recommend an 18-month sentence. She has agreed to pay more than $420,000 in restitution. Buddenberg was sentenced in May to two years in federal prison and must pay $398,272 in restitution. For more news coverage of Kissane’s plea, please see the San Diego Union-Tribune story by clicking here.

The AETA has been found constitutional by the courts numerous times and has been influential in deterring campaigns of violence against biomedical researchers, their families, and their institutions.

AETA Appeal Reportedly ‘Flounders’ in 7th Circuit

Based on the “critical” questions and statements of a three-judge panel at a September 21 hearing, Court House News reported the appeal of Kevin Johnson’s conviction under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) “flounders.”  Johnson received a three-year prison sentence for attacking a mink farm near Chicago in 2013 (U.S. v. Johnson).  At the hearing, Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CRR) argued on appeal that such prosecution was unlawful because the AETA was unconstitutional. This argument against the AETA has been made repeatedly by animal rights attorneys. Four courts, including  two federal Courts of Appeal, have found the law constitutional.   The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to review the issues in Blum v. Holder.

U.S. Circuit Judge Ann Williams noted she had "a big problem" with the argument. "The definition of animal enterprise is very clear under the statute, and traveling interstate to free 2,000 minks is the kind of crime this statute envisions," Williams added.  After Meeropol claimed the statute was overbroad and might cover throwing a stone through a Whole Foods window or the financial losses allegedly caused by the film “Blackfish”, Judge Williams remained unconvinced.  "The statute specifically says that it doesn't cover expressive activity protected by the First Amendment or lawful economic disruption," the judge said. The other two federal district court judges on the panel also made comments critical of the appeal. When Meeropol attempted to reiterate her arguments, Court House News said the court “seemed too disinterested to question her further and certainly disinclined to invalidate the statute.”

One of the ‘AETA 4’ Sentenced to Two Years in Prison

Joseph Buddenberg has been sentenced to two years in federal prison for a cross-country fur-industry vandalism and mink-liberation campaign.  Buddendberg was previously known as one of the “AETA 4,” after he faced charges in California for alleged illegal activity against researchers in 2008.  That charge, the first under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), was dismissed in 2010 for lack of indictment documentation. At his sentencing last week, Buddenberg also was ordered by the federal court to pay restitution of $398,272. He pleaded guilty in February to a charge of conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA),  A codefendant, Nicole Kissane, pleaded guilty to the same charge and is due to be sentenced in June. She will share in payment of the restitution ordered.

The two were arrested in July 2014, charged with participating in a concerted campaign against the fur industry in the summer and fall of 2013 that totaled some 40,000 miles in covert travel before it was over. The pair’s months-long crime spree in at least 5 states is outlined in this Los Angeles Times article.  A Newsweek article, Animal Activists Are Shouting out Their Crimes Online, gives more background on Buddenberg and Kissane, as well as other extremists boasting about their actions anonymously.

Another Appeal Filed Claiming AETA is Unconstitutional

In a 115-page brief filed on May 9, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) attorney Rachel Meeropol seeks to convince the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) is unconstitutional. A previous CCR case challenging the AETA as a violation of free speech on behalf of five activists (Blum v. Holder) was dismissed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014. A request for the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision was denied. CCR also argued the AETA was unconstitutional in defense of Kevin Olliff (aka Johnson) and Tyler Lang. The federal court in Chicago rejected that argument, and Olliff and Lang were tried and convicted of AETA conspiracy. They entered non-cooperating guilty plea agreements, which did not waive their right of appeal.

Court House News Service reports Meeropol said it is irrational to punish nonviolent property damage as terrorism, and her clients have a liberty interest in avoiding being labeled terrorists when they have committed no violent crime. "Designating people who release animals — in order to save them from being killed and made into coats — as terrorists is not only preposterous, it is unconstitutional." "This criminalizes all interstate animal rights advocacy," Meeropol wrote, and "reach[es] a vast amount of protected speech and expressive conduct."

Two previous and similar challenges questioning the constitutionality of the AETA have failed.  Please continue to check your email for NABR's member newsletter, the NABR Update, or visit www.NABR.org for updates on this issue.

Newsweek Profiles Convicted Animal Rights Extremists

On March 23, Newsweek published a report about the conviction under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of Kevin Johnson (a.k.a. Olliff) and Tyler Lang, “Mink on the Run: Animal 'Terrorists' Smacked by Federal Prosecutors.”

The article outlines the events leading to the arrest and prosecution of Johnson and Lang, including the release of 2,000 mink and the aftermath of their attack.  Not only were dozens of the released mink killed by roadway traffic, but the victims were forced to close their business and lost their retirement savings.  Unfortunately, the article does not include a statement from victims about the destruction of their business and minimizes the nature of the crimes committed by the pair, their criminal histories, and the evidence presented against them.

You will recall that Judge St. Eve sentenced Lang to three months time already served, six months of house arrest, six months community confinement and one year of supervised release. He is also required to make a $200,000 restitution payment to the farm operators.  "This is a very serious offense that caused a substantial loss to the victim. It wiped out their business and life savings," St. Eve said at Lang's sentencing hearing, reported the Chicago Tribune. "You destroyed their feelings of security and their trust of others, in addition to their business. Johnson received a three-year prison sentence and was ordered to make a $200,000 restitution payment.

To read the Newsweek article, please click here.

Second Activist Sentenced in AETA Case

Tyler Lang, an animal rights activist from California, was sentenced Wednesday for his involvement in the 2013 raid of a fur farm in Morris, IL.  In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve called Tyler Lang's actions "counterproductive," noting that hundreds of the minks died and many others suffered.  Judge St. Eve sentenced Lang to three months time already served, six months of house arrest, six months community confinement and one year of supervised release. He is also required to make a $200,000 restitution payment to the farm operators.  "This is a very serious offense that caused a substantial loss to the victim. It wiped out their business and life savings," St. Eve said at Lang's sentencing hearing, reported the Chicago Tribune. "You destroyed their feelings of security and their trust of others, in addition to their business."

Lang and his partner in crime Kevin Johnson (a.k.a. Olliff) were on a cross-country journey to sabotage animal farms when they were stopped by police a few days after the Morris incident. They were arrested in possession of tools and masks while staking out a fox farm near Peoria, which they planned to sabotage as well, authorities said.  The pair was convicted of conspiracy under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).  Last month, Johnson received a three-year prison sentence and was ordered to make a $200,000 restitution payment.  In a statement, Lang and Johnson's support team said "Tyler and Kevin's case should be a reminder to us all that we have to show each other love and support in the face of State oppression."

Animal Extremist Sentenced to Three Years and $200,000 in Restitution

In federal court Monday, February 29, Kevin Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution to the fur farm owner victims of his sabotage, according to the Chicago Tribune.  Johnson, 29, pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiring to travel across state lines to interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise, a violation of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve said she was troubled by the "escalation" of Johnson's activism over the years and that previous stints behind bars had not seemed to deter him. She also noted that his actions on the mink farm caused suffering for many of the animals he professed to want to save. In all, more than 550 of the minks died, many painfully, the judge said.  The fur farm owners were forced to close their longstanding business and lost their retirement funds in the process. Before he was sentenced, Johnson choked back tears and apologized for the attack, saying he has finally realized after nearly a decade of arrests that committing criminal acts was not an acceptable form of protest.

“(Johnson) has stalked, stolen, harassed, and threatened to make his point," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bethany Biesenthal wrote in a court filing, "... his past shows an escalating dangerousness."  Records show Johnson has a long criminal record in California starting in 2006. Video from the protests depicted him screaming into a bullhorn outside Pom Wonderful executives' homes, threatening to harm them and their families, according to prosecutors. Three years later, Johnson was arrested after threatening UCLA professors over their use of animals in research. He later pleaded guilty to criminal stalking and served about 1 1/2 years in prison, prosecutors said.  In May 2012, five months after his release on parole, Johnson was arrested for shoplifting and inciting a riot, prosecutors said. Later that year he was arrested again for attempting to burglarize a pharmacy, and when authorities searched a laptop computer found in Johnson's car, they found personal information about scientific researchers and their families, according to prosecutors.

An accomplice, Tyler Lang of Los Angeles, also pleaded guilty last year to the same charge as Johnson.  Lang is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge St. Eve on March 23, 2016.

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