Animal welfare activists accused of felony thefts head back to Sonoma County court in December

A hearing to determine if four Berkeley animal activists will stand trial on felony charges in connection with alleged thefts during 2018 and 2019 protests at local poultry farms has been continued.|

A hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to send to trial the case against four animal welfare activists, who are accused of committing felony-level thefts during anti-animal cruelty demonstrations in Petaluma a few years ago, will resume in December.

Almira Tanner, Priya Sawhney, Wayne Hsiung, and Cassandra King are accused of committing grand theft and commercial burglary, as well as felony conspiracy to commit a crime in demonstrations that took place at three Petaluma poultry farms in 2018 and 2019.

The four activists are also accused of additional misdemeanor charges of trespassing, unlawful assembly and petty theft, an amended charging document, filed on July 26, 2019 with the Sonoma County Superior Court, shows. Altogether they are charged with 15 felony and misdemeanor counts.

Members of Direct Action Everywhere, a Berkeley-based animal welfare group that says its mission is to bring attention to the suffering of commercially raised animals, they have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors allege they illegally removed chickens or ducks during demonstrations at Sunrise Farms; McCoy’s Poultry Services, where chickens are raised for meat; and Reichardt Duck Farm.

The activists contend the birds were in distress due to poor health.

Up to 500 protesters walked through the Weber Family Farms’ Liberty Road property, which is part of Sunrise Farms. Prosecutors say they ignored requests from owner Mike Weber and other staff to leave the property, stating they had a right to inspect conditions.

According to court records, the defendants are accused of removing about 15 chickens during a Sept. 29, 2018, demonstration at McCoy’s Poultry Services.

Prosecutors also contend that on June 3, 2019, the defendants took possession of several ducks and carried them outside, then chained themselves to “fixtures of” the farm which interfered and obstructed with farm operations.

If convicted, the activists could face up to nine years in prison, according to the state penal code.

The preliminary hearing, which began this past Tuesday, is expected to resume at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 7.

“There’s a lot of material, a lot of issues and it’s a different kind of case,” said defense attorney Chris Andrian, who represents Sawhney. “I’m learning a lot about farming and factory farming and free-range chickens. People are willing to put a lot on the line and feel strongly about these issues.”

District Attorney Brian Staebell confirmed the continuation of the hearing, but declined further comment.

Attorney Izaak Schwager said his clients would prefer to go to trial “because they want a story to be told.”

He added, “Frankly, my biggest gripe with this whole case is these are not felonies. Regardless of whether you believe what they are doing is right or wrong, you don’t make felons out of people of conscience.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at

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