Wednesday, April 21, 2010

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in U.S. v. Stevens

The Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School (the Center) was not surprised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in U.S. v. Stevens. The Court struck down as unconstitutional a federal statute (18 U.S.C. §48) criminalizing the behavior of anyone who knowingly “creates, sells or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty.” The statute’s target was “crush videos” sometimes referred to as animal “snuff” films.

The Court noted that the House Committee Report described these videos as “the intentional torture and killing of helpless animals,” which “appeal to persons with a very specific sexual fetish who find them sexually arousing.” The bill had significant support in Congress because animal cruelty is already illegal. Due to the difficulties in prosecuting this clandestine activity, Congress focused on criminalizing the creation and distribution, for commercial gain, of the resulting videos.

The Court’s majority, however, determined that the statute also potentially applied to activity that might be deemed cruel but is not illegal, such as hunting videos. Based on this finding, the Court overturned Mr. Stevens’ conviction for distributing videos of dogfighting, even though that behavior is illegal in all 50 states. In doing so, the Court supported the tradition of protecting First Amendment rights by refusing to uphold a conviction based upon a statute that it believed was not sufficiently narrowly tailored.

Importantly, the Court did not address whether preventing animal cruelty is a compelling governmental interest worthy of constitutional protection. Rather it determined that the statute in question was too broad and encroached on protected interests. Thus, the Court found the statute regulates speech protected by the First Amendment and therefore could not survive a constitutional challenge.

As noted in the Center for Animal Law Studies’ amicus curiae brief submitted in Stevens, American courts have long recognized that preventing animal cruelty ultimately serves human interests. One reason for this is the historical view that animal cruelty is abhorrent because the act of violence itself, regardless of the victim, dulls humanitarian feelings. One court in 1904 noted that constantly seeing disfigured and mutilated animals tends to corrupt the public morals. And as early as 1896, a court made clear that the legislative goal of anti-cruelty laws was “not only to protect these animals, but to conserve the public morals….”

The Center’s brief also references numerous studies explaining the connection between human and animal violence. These studies form the basis of many fundamental policy decisions. For instance:

· In the 1970’s, the FBI began using animal cruelty as one of the key factors to predict future violent behavior;

· The International Association of Chiefs of Police urges law enforcement to take animal cruelty reports seriously because violence against animals provides an early opportunity to prevent future violent crimes; and

· An article published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association summarizes the importance of addressing animal cruelty, stating that “animal abuse and neglect do not occur in a vacuum but are part of a pattern of dangerous and antisocial behavior jeopardizing people, animals, and inanimate property.”

The cumulative strength of the evidence illustrates that violence knows no boundaries. This requires regulation of both the actual acts of violence and the depictions of those acts.

The Stevens Court suggests a path to achieve this goal. A new statute, one more narrowly tailored, could successfully prohibit the creation or sale of depictions of animal cruelty for commercial use. The Center for Animal Law Studies looks forward to the development of a new statute to protect all victims, animals and people alike, from the impact of senseless violence for commercial gain.

Read the Center's amicus curiae brief submitted in U.S. v. Stevens.

Read the U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion and Alito's dissent.

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  1. Nice site, very informative. I like to read this.,it is very helpful in my part for my criminal law studies.

  2. Thank you, Dinah. We greatly appreciate your comment. We'll be sure to do some criminal law posts as it relates to animal protection. Stay tuned....