The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has decided a case that upholds a criminal punishment with an interesting stigma. It serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who believes that vandalism is a harmless act.
In August 2013, two young men traveled from California to a mink farm in Morris, Illinois where they released approximately 2000 minks from their cages. Portions of the fence surrounding the mink farm were removed to promote the animals’ escape. In addition, two farm-vehicles were doused with caustic substances, and the defendants spray‐painted the words “Liberation is Love” on a barn. (Perhaps not. News reports indicated that most minks ended up as roadkill or meals for predators.) The mink farm bred and sold minks to fur manufacturers. Their vandalism caused the farm between $120,000 and $200,000 worth of damage. After they committed the vandalism, the defendants began driving to a fox farm about 75 miles away when they were arrested by local law enforcement and charged with a state crime.
A year later, they were criminally charged with violating a federal statute, the Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act (AETA). They moved to dismiss the criminal complaint on a variety of grounds such as an interference with their First Amendment right of free speech. They also asserted that the statute violates substantive due process on its face and as applied to them because it labels persons who commit non‐violent property damage as “terrorists.” Not surprisingly, the court of appeals rejected each defense and upheld the district court’s conviction. It is the terrorist label, however, which seemed to most offend the defendants.
The defendants (one of whom was behind bars for the state crime) claimed that AETA was unconstitutional on its face and as applied to them because it labelled them as “terrorists.” They further claimed that this violated a fundamental liberty interest, and was comparable to being labelled as a “sex offender” if the real crime committed was merely kidnapping. The Seventh Circuit pointed out that the word “terrorism” appears only in the unofficial and non-codified version of the statute, and that being convicted under the statute did not lead to any enhancement of the punishment such as registration as a terrorist. In fact, the court held that the defendants had no fundamental liberty interest in having their crime described in other terms.
The defendants argued that it was not “rational” that they were convicted under a statute with the word “terrorism” in the non‐codified title because their actions were not violent and most definitions of the word “terrorism” contain some mention of violence. In enacting the law, however, Congress was concerned about actions by extremists such as arson and bombings, crimes involving the destruction of property that are extremely violent. For that reason the word “terrorism” certainly bears a rational relationship to many of the acts covered by AETA, including their acts at the mink farm. The claim of the statute’s violation of their substantive due process failed.
Some people are sensitive to the labels applied to them. Given the physical occupation experienced in recent years at mines and pipeline construction sites, perhaps identifying and shaming people for their actions would be a more effective punishment than the fines normally levied for the offense. At least we now know that such punishments are constitutional.
This article was authored by Blair M. Gardner, Jackson Kelly PLLC.