Amy Meyer was horrified by what she saw at a Draper slaughterhouse, but she didn't plan on becoming the first person charged with violating the state's "ag gag" law.
Amy Meyer, 25, faces a class B misdemeanor for agricultural operation interference. Prosecutors filed the charge in Draper's justice court Feb. 19 after Meyer reportedly used her cell phone to film the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. 11 days earlier.
Class B misdemeanors carry up to six months in jail. Meyer has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Her next court appearance is May 23 and she is free pending trial.
In a written statement sent to the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, Meyer explains that she went to the slaughterhouse because she heard bystanders on public property could "witness the horror of cows struggling for their lives as they were led to their violent deaths."
Defense attorney Stewart Gollan said Monday that as Meyer stood on public property she used her cellphone to capture video of the facility.
In her statement, Meyer describes the scene as upsetting, saying she saw "piles of horns" and "flesh being spewed from a chute on the side of the building." Meyer also writes of seeing cows struggle to turn around after "they smelled and heard the misery that awaited them inside." She goes on to write about seeing an apparently sick or injured cow being carried away in a tractor, "as though she were nothing more than rubble."
While still outside the slaughterhouse, Gollan said, someone from the meat company approached Meyer saying she wasn't allowed to film the operations.
"He made some reference to having seen someone enter his right of way," Gollan said.
Meyer responded that she was on public property and was allowed to be there. She reiterated the point in her statement, saying she "never once crossed the barbed wire fence that exists to demarcate private and public property."
Eventually the police arrived, questioned Meyer and then released her without making any arrests.
A police report states that someone from the slaughterhouse saw two women on company property. The women were recording images, according to the person who reported them, but at least one had fled by the time an officer arrived.
The report states that the woman who remained was shaking nervously and asked if the officer wanted to talk to her attorney. Names have been redacted from the report so it remains unclear when it may have been referring to Meyer.
Gollan said Meyer was surprised when she learned later that she was being charged with a crime. Gollan described Meyer as an "animal welfare advocate" who visited the facility simply out of curiosity. She does not have a criminal record.
The so-called "ag gag" law passed during Utah's 2012 legislative session.
Utah State Courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer on Tuesday said a search of records confirms Meyer's is the first such prosecution. But Gollan argued that Meyer never crossed into private property. She thought her behavior was constitutionally protected and, according to Gollan, police reports state there was no evidence of interference.
Gollan also expressed concern over the constitutionality of law itself, saying it was apparently designed to prevent people from gathering information about agricultural facilities.
"When you shield certain kinds of activities from public criticism," Gollan added, "that raises some concerns."
Meyer's case could become a cause célèbre for animal activists and First Amendment supporters online. The case sat quietly in Draper's municipal court for nine weeks until a writer for the animal website Green is the New Red reported Meyer's case Monday. More generally, environmental publication Grist mentioned "ag gag" laws and Utah last week.
Prosecutors working on the case did not return calls Monday. Representatives for Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. also did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Draper Mayor Darrell H. Smith is a co-owner of the meatpacking company. He did not return a call Monday.
As a result of Smith's connections to the company, Gollan plans to ask the judge to recuse himself from the case. Gollan said that judges in Draper's justice court are appointed by the mayor with the advice of the City Council.
What the law says
According to Utah Title 76 Chapter 6 Section 112, a person is guilty of the class B offense of agricultural operation interference if he or she:
• Obtains access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses or ...
• Applies for employment at an agricultural operation with the intent to record an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation when such recordings are prohibited or ...
• Without consent from the owner of the operation or the owner's agent, knowingly or intentionally records an image of, or sound from, the operation while the person is committing criminal trespass.