In recent years, farmers and ranchers have been increasingly targeted by animal rights groups trespassing on their properties, stealing farm animals, and other acts of vandalism. The frequency with which undercover animal rights groups infiltrate farms, ranches and other animal enterprises as undercover employees is increasing. In light of this increased activity, farmers and ranchers are searching for new ways to guard their property and protect their animals, especially after a breach of privacy. Although some state legislatures have attempted to regulate the release of video or photographs taken at an animal enterprise without permission, much related legislation has been successfully challenged on constitutional grounds.

For example, in Animal Legal Defense Fund, et al. v. C.L. Butch Otter and Lawrence Wasden, No. 1:14-cv-00104-BLW (D. Idaho Aug. 3, 2015), the court held that legislation which targets journalists or activists, who may be critical of animal enterprises, could violate the constitutional right to freedom of speech. While that ruling protects filming and the subsequent release of a video, there still may be legal remedies that farmers and ranchers can seek against those who enter their operation under false pretenses to harm their animals and business.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), 18 U.S.C. § 43, is a federal law that protects against the potential damage and harm caused by members of animal rights groups. The AETA prohibits individuals who have traveled in interstate or foreign commerce, or used or caused to be used the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, from damaging the property of an animal enterprise, or intentionally putting the owner of an animal enterprise in fear of death or serious bodily injury. An individual found guilty pursuant to the AETA faces a range of penalties, including fines and imprisonment depending on the severity of harm and economic damage caused.

Can farmers and ranchers use the AETA to prosecute those individuals who knowingly accepted employment of an animal enterprise for the purpose of harming that business and the animals therein? To succeed with an AETA claim, farmers or ranchers would have to demonstrate the damage to the animals, 18 U.S.C. § 43(a)(2)(A), or show how undercover employees interfered with or conspired to interfere with the operation. 18 U.S.C. §§ 43(a)(2)(B),(C).

Until these questions are explored in a court of law, best practice on any animal enterprise to prevent loss, damage or harm to animals, equipment and other property is always to thoroughly screen employees and ensure that they are properly trained and supervised.

Sarah Philips is a summer associate in the firm’s Princeton office.