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Charges dropped against woman in Utah's first 'ag-gag' case

Published: Tuesday, April 30 2013 5:54 p.m. MDT

DRAPER — The case against a Salt Lake woman believed to be the first person charged under the state's "ag gag" law was dismissed Tuesday.

Amy Meyer, 25, was charged with agricultural operation interference, a class B misdemeanor, in Draper Justice Court on Feb. 19. The charges stem from an incident on Feb. 8 when Meyer went to see the operations of Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. in Draper, said Meyer's attorney, Stewart Gollan.

Gollan said Meyer, who is interested in animal food production and treatment, had heard from others that the company's operations were easily viewed from the public roadway. On Feb. 8, she went to witness operations for herself and filmed what she saw.

Meyer said she was about 100 feet away from the property on a public easement but could still see operations. She said she decided to film when she saw a tractor carrying away a "downed cow."

She was approached by someone from the company who informed her that she was not allowed to film, according to Gollan, but Meyer responded that she was on public property.

HB187, which was signed into law in 2012, makes it a class B misdemeanor to trespass onto private livestock or poultry operations and record sound or images without the owner's permission. It also prohibits seeking employment with the intent of making those recordings. Leaving a recording device for that purpose would be a class A misdemeanor.

Legislative debate about the law last year centered on unauthorized filming of agricultural operations by whistle-blowers seeking to expose animal abuse, although no instances of such surreptitious filming had been known to occur in Utah.

"She was very clearly aware of what the law prohibited and what it didn't and felt her conduct didn't run afoul of the law," Gollan said. "She was standing in a public space."

Gollan said he was unaware of anyone facing charges under the law before Meyer. Utah State Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer confirmed Tuesday that Meyer was the first person to be prosecuted under the law.

Gollan reiterated that Meyer has long held that she never left the public right of way. Still, there was a dispute between Meyer and the meat packing employee over whether she had entered the property, and Draper police were called. She was questioned but released.

Meyer said she asked police whether she was on public property and was told she was.

"So I believed I was within my rights to film because it is not a crime to film from the public street," she said, adding that her footage showed she never trespassed. "We have every right to see what is happening inside those buildings. That is what people, consumers, are eating, (and) they have every right to know what is happening."

Meyer was eventually charged with the single misdemeanor count, which carried a possible sentence of up to six months in jail. Court records show that prosecutors filed a motion asking that the case be dismissed Tuesday and the dismissal was granted by Judge Daniel Bertch.

Gollan said he had been working with prosecutors to resolve the case and had presented additional evidence that supported his client's story. He said prosecutors dismissed the case for evidentiary reasons.

"Based on what was presented in their motion, they had concerns about the sufficiency of the evidence going forward," Gollan said.

Meyer said it was the strength of her recording, which confirmed her narrative, that convinced prosecutors.

Draper spokeswoman Maridene Hancock said in a statement Tuesday that the case was dismissed after Meyer provided Draper city prosecutor Ben Rasmussen with "new evidence, which shows she may not have trespassed onto private property." Hancock said the information was not initially provided to investigators.

Meyer said she was excited by both the dismissal as well as the media attention her case drew, because she hopes it will influence other states considering similar "ag gag" laws.

"I think a lot of people don't know about these ag gag laws in the first place and, second of all, they don't know how they are being used to prosecute people who are just public citizens on public right of ways like me," she said. "I hope that my case sets a precedent."

Meantime, Meyer said she will continue her animal activism efforts.

"I would encourage anyone else to use their rights," she said. "If they see animal cruelty happening and they're in a public forum and public space, they should videotape it and record it, because that is your right and we shouldn't be afraid to use that."

Kaitlynn Kelly, a media coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, released a statement from the group Tuesday. She said the organization "was glad" to fund Meyer's defense.

"Utah has been shamed for enacting this desperate 'ag gag' bill in the first place," the statement reads. "These bills are doomed to fail, as the public wants more transparency in food production — not for state governments to help the meat industry cover up the grisly reality of slaughterhouses."

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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