Fifth Circuit, FBI Boost Efforts to Prosecute Animal Cruelty

There is good news in the fight against a particularly egregious form of animal cruelty. On June 13, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned a lower court ruling that the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010 is unconstitutional. The appeals court found that the law “is limited to unprotected obscenity” and is therefore constitutional. It also recognized the difficulty of enforcing cruelty laws against the makers of crush videos because of their “clandestine nature,” and that “Congress has a significant interest in preventing” the violence and criminal activity associated with crush videos. The appeals court sent the case on which its ruling was based back to the lower court. In that case, the first one brought under the new law passed after the Supreme Court struck down the original 1999 crush video law, the US Attorney in Southern Texas  charged Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Justice with “creating and distributing ‘animal crush videos.’” The pair were originally arrested for felony animal cruelty.

The Supreme Court had called the 1999 law “substantially overbroad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment” for potentially affecting materials pertaining to legal activities, such as hunting. However, the Court also said it was not deciding whether a more limited statute would be constitutional. So Congress precisely crafted the new law to prohibit interstate and foreign commerce only in “crush videos” as obscene depictions of illegal acts. In the Richards and Justice case, the district court judge nevertheless dismissed the crush video counts, stating that the new law remained overly broad. All the federal charges against the pair were then dropped but the cruelty charges were reinstated. With the appeals court reversal, the federal case can be resumed.

Pending approval by Director James Comey and the necessary process changes, the FBI will begin collecting data on animal cruelty crimes for inclusion in its Uniform Crime Report. This is the culmination of a 12-year effort by AWI staff that recently received crucial assistance from the National Sheriffs Association. Look for further details on our website and in the Fall 2014 AWI Quarterly.