Undercover investigations by news organizations and special interest groups have long been a staple of American Democracy. But there is concern that bills under consideration in the Arkansas Senate could change that.
SB 13, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, would criminalize any investigation of animal cruelty by a person or group that is not a law enforcement agency.
"A person who is not a certified law enforcement officer who knowingly conducts an investigation, including collection of evidence into alleged claims of criminal conduct involving an animal by another person or entity…upon conviction is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor," a section of the bill reads.
Attorney Charles Schlumberger, a partner in the law firm Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull & Burrow PLLC in Little Rock, said the bill is so vague that it could criminalize a person reporting the abuse of a neighbor's dog or news organization going undercover.
"If that constitutes an investigation, what this bill really means is you'll never have anybody prosecuted for animal cruelty unless the sheriff's department somehow happens to be on patrol and happens to see an abused animal," he said. "Apparently if the next-door neighbor calls and says, 'Hey Sheriff, there's a mistreated animal over here,' based on the vagueness of investigation, that person has committed a misdemeanor."
But Stubblefield said that was simply not the case.
"This is just common sense," he said. "This is not going to stop anyone from reporting animal abuse."
According to Stubblefield, the intent of the law is to target groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, who he says have overstepped their bounds by spending funds making unfounded allegations of animal abuse instead of caring for animals in the organization's care.
He said the Humane Society raised $127 million last year and spent less than 1% on helping animals while spending $50 million on fundraising. He also claimed the organization raised $3 million after Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast last year, and only spent 15% helping animals.
"I started to look into (their practices) because I thought some of their priorities were in the wrong place," Stubblefield said.
According to Charity Navigator, a non-profit organization that rates the financial transparency and effectiveness of charities, the organization devoted $97.389 million, or 77%, of its expenses to "program expenses," such as caring for animals and saving animals from life-threatening situations and only $24.248 million on fundraising during the fiscal year ending Dec. 2010.
Regardless of how much the Humane Society may have spent on caring for animals and fulfilling its mission, Stubblefield said his bill was intended to stop some of the work the group was doing.
"A lot of these people are not educated in animal health and they automatically come to the conclusion that these people are abusing the animal and people (accused of mistreatment) cannot afford an attorney to represent themselves," he said.
Stubblefield said he is re-writing SB 13 to change some of the vagueness Schlumberger noted.
Another Stubblefield bill, SB 14, is also under consideration and would criminalize recording the operations at a livestock or poultry facility.
According to the bill, any person who "knowingly records an image of or sound from the livestock or poultry operation" would be guilty of a misdemeanor upon conviction.
The bill also targets special interest groups, such as the Humane Society and PETA, whose supporters may seek employment under false pretense as part of an investigation, Stubblefield said.
"This prevents someone who knowingly goes to a place to get hired, film something undercover and take that film and doctor it up," he added.
Even though there is concern that journalists could be targeted with this legislation, Stubblefield said the concern is unfounded.
"A news organization has a legitimate right to come in if there's a legitimate animal abuse case," he said. "But this is talking about an individual with a wrong motive. If you aid or abed this individual who is trying to film or document this for illegal purposes, they too can be charged."
FIRST AMENDMENT CHALLENGE
But Schlumberger said Stubblefield's assurance for members of the press was, in fact, no assurance at all.
"That doesn't do anything," he said. "The person who takes the video is still subject to a misdemeanor. When you talk about the first amendment, if it's a member of the press that takes the video, that very well could meet some sort of first amendment challenge (in court)."
Holly Dickson, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said while her organization has not taken a stand on the two bills, she could not understand a need for such legislation.
"I don't know why the legislature would see fit to exempt a certain category of people from recording under our laws. That doesn't make sense," she said. "If the intent is to exempt a certain group from the public capturing evidence of what's going on, I'm not sure that does anything to protect the public."
Stubblefield said he will not back down from these bills, though amendments to the bills will clarify the concerns attorneys and observers may have.
"We are going to take some language like that out and make it easier to understand," he said, adding that he was unsure when the bill would be ready for a committee review.
The senator said anyone who may question his commitment to protecting the safety of animals have no reason to worry.
"I love animals more than anybody," he said. "I have no use for someone abusing an animal. I'll turn them in myself. I won't tolerate that."