SONOMA COUNTY JURY CONVICTS ANIMAL RIGHTS LEADER IN FARM TRESPASS CASE
By Michelle C. Pardo, Duane Morris Law
Wayne Hsiung, the co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), a Berkeley, California based animal activist group, was found guilty of two counts of misdemeanor trespass and one count of felony conspiracy to trespass on November 2, following a two month jury trial. The jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on a second felony conspiracy charge, resulting in a mistrial on that charge. Hsiung’s conviction followed six days of deliberations by a jury in Santa Rosa, California. Hsiung was taken into custody immediately following the verdict.
The conviction represents a major victory for farms across the country that have been subjected to Hsiung and his followers’ “open rescue” style of activism in which animal activists illegally enter farms, slaughterhouses and other animal businesses and remove animals from those properties without consent and without regard to biosecurity risks. This particular case, which was significantly delayed during the COVID pandemic, stemmed from two mass protest actions in 2018 and 2019 in which activists removed chickens and ducks from two Sonoma County farms. The unlawful activity wasn’t the first for DxE members, who have faced similar prosecutions for these tactics at farms in Utah, North Carolina and California. (Read our prior blogs on DxE and Hsiung here and here).
Hsiung, who is a trained attorney and a former Berkeley, California mayoral candidate, represented himself at his trial and argued that his actions were justified in order to save the animals from “animal cruelty” and “factory farming.” The Court had entered a gag order preventing defendants from speaking to the media about their case to avoid swaying potential jurors, a measure that Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky (unsuccessfully) urged the Court to vacate. While previous trials had limited how much evidence Hsiung and his co-defendants could present to juries about what they deemed animal cruelty, some of those cases resulted in acquittals, while Hsiung’s previous conviction in North Carolina did not result in jail time. Hsiung is currently being held in a California jail awaiting sentencing without bail, which is scheduled for November 30.
His conviction appears to have come as a surprise to his many DxE and other animal activist supporters, some of who had gathered for a “live” reveal of the verdict (“Decision is In on the Sonoma Rescue Trial”, UnchainedTV), only to be perplexed as jurors filed out of the courthouse, ignoring DxE supporters as they passed by.
In blogging about the Sonoma County convictions (in a post titled “I am in jail. And I am grateful”) Hsiung boldly stated that he does not apologize for any of his actions and he is actively writing letters from jail that his team is posting online. Hsiung’s lack of remorse for his crimes may well influence the Court’s sentencing decision. His DxE followers also have committed to continuing “open rescues” despite these actions failing to qualify for the legal defense of necessity. Hsiung’s supporters have doubled down and launched a social media campaign, with the hashtag #ProsecuteThis, which appears to encourage continued harassment of the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office. Several of Hsiung’s cohorts had charges dismissed by the Sonoma County prosecutor and/or accepted guilty pleas.
The verdict is an important step in protecting farms and the biosecurity of their animals and the food supply from individuals determined to engage in illegal activity in support of their personal beliefs. While these “open rescues” have been prosecuted at the state level, perhaps now continued convictions and promises of repeat activities will generate more interest in utilizing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), 18 U.S.C. § 43, a federal law that criminalizes traveling in interstate or foreign commerce for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise, to combat such illegal activity.