IRON COUNTY – Four animal rights activists associated with a September 2014 incident at the Circle Four Farms in Milford, in which they allegedly came to the farm to follow pigs from the farm to a California slaughterhouse, will be facing only criminal trespassing charges after the Iron County Attorney chose not to pursue charges against them for agricultural interference at the behest of the company.
Farm Animal Rights Movement activists Sarah Jane Gage, 43, Bryan Roger Monell, 50, Robert Edward Penney, 64, and Harold R. Weiss, 34, were scheduled to appear in an Iron County Justice Court hearing Jan. 8 to enter pleas in regards to two citations they received on September 24, 2014. The four appeared by remote and entered not-guilty pleas on both counts.
Iron County District Attorney Scott Garrett then dropped the agricultural interference charges – sometimes referred to as ag-gag charges – Monday, because, he said in an email to St. George News, Circle Four Farms did not want to pursue it. The trespassing charge, however, remains in play.
“My office filed an information as to each defendant charging each with one count of criminal trespassing,” Garrett said. “By not filing the agricultural interference charge it was effectively dismissed.”
Although most of Circle Four Farms, 341 S. Main Street, Milford, is located in Beaver County, because the farm is so massive, the portion of the farm where the alleged trespassing occurred was located within the jurisdiction of Iron County, Detective Sgt. Dave Mitchell said.
“Sheriff Deputies from Beaver County had detained three California state residents, and one Maryland state resident at an offsite location,” Mitchell said in an email to St. George News. “The four people involved were each issued a citation for agriculture criminal trespassing, and agricultural operation interference, and released.”
The agricultural interference law is weak and unconstitutional, the foursome’s Los Angeles-based lawyer T. Matthew Phillips said. He was certain that the charges would be dropped, he said, because Utah lawmakers know the law is flimsy and are not prepared for confrontation.
“It’s unconstitutional because it’s too narrowly tailored as to its focus,” Phillips said. “Meaning that, it only targets the would-be whistleblowers and it benefits the special interest groups.”
According to a press release, the four activists drove from Southern California to Milford to follow the path of the Circle Four Farms pigs to a slaughterhouse in California, and “were detained for five hours for photographing Circle Four pig farm,” a time-account Beaver County Sheriff Cameron M. Noel disputes.
The detention was conducted by the Beaver County Sheriff’s Office without any evidence that a crime had been committed by his clients, Phillips said.
Noel said that the entire incident from beginning to end took no longer than three hours.
Beaver County deputies were the first to arrive on the scene, Noel said, and since the place where the incident had occurred was not in their jurisdiction, the group was kept at that location until Iron County Sheriff’s deputies could arrive. Noel said that it would have taken much less time if the defendants had cooperated with law enforcement.
“They wouldn’t tell (deputies) who they were, (and) they wouldn’t tell them where they were coming from,” he said. “They went into a campground and blew through where you pay the fee, and we think they were attempting to hide from law enforcement, because they knew that security had been called.”
Before calling Iron County, Noel said, Beaver deputies had to wait for Circle Four Farms security guards to arrive on the scene to identify the four people detained as those who were found to be on the property earlier. Had the people in the group identified themselves, he said, the process would have moved much faster.
The whole allegation is absurd, Phillips said. There was nothing clandestine about what the activists were doing, and there was nothing broken or stolen to indicate that any kind of criminal activity had occurred.
Through their investigation, however, Iron County deputies determined the areas trespassed were fenced, Mitchell said, and clearly marked with “No Trespassing” signs.
Under Utah law, a person is guilty of criminal trespassing if they knowingly remain on “agricultural or range land” despite fencing or other forms of enclosures that a “reasonable person” would recognize as a barrier meant to exclude an intruder; or has signs posted in an obvious place that would be seen by any person in the area that borders the land.
According to its website, Circle Four Farms is a Smithfield Foods Inc. company owned by Murphy-Brown LLC out of Warsaw, North Carolina. Though Circle Four Farms headquarters are in Milford they have a number of other operations across Southern Utah.
“We employ approximately 450 people,” the website states. “Our production facilities house 74,000 sows, 156,000 nursery, and 454,000 finishing spaces.”
Smithfield Farms/Circle Four Farms Director of Corporate Communications Kathleen Kirkham declined to comment on the issue.
“This is a criminal trespassing matter,” she said. “And it is Smithfield Foods’ longstanding policy not to comment on pending legal proceedings.”
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