Animal welfare group rallies outside Sonoma County courthouse as criminal case against activists advances

Demonstrators with Berkeley-based Direct Action Everywhere attended hearings related to a trial for three animal rights activists accused of trespassing onto chicken and duck farms near Petaluma in May 2018 and June 2019.|

Demonstrators with the Berkeley-based animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere rallied Friday morning outside of Sonoma County Superior Court, where a criminal case against two fellow activists is proceeding to trial this month.

Wayne Hansen Hsiung and Priya Sawney are charged with two counts each of conspiracy and trespassing in connection with two demonstrations staged at chicken and duck farms near Petaluma in May 2018 and June 2019.

During a hearing Friday morning, similar charges were dismissed against a third defendant, Cassandra King.

She told The Press Democrat during the rally no explanation was given in court. A Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office spokesman added he could not comment on the matter due to a gag order put in place by the judge.

King was among about 80 members of the animal rights group gathered outside the courthouse, where a hearing was held Friday morning to discuss matters in the case.

Opening statements aren’t scheduled to happen for at least a week, but final preparations are ongoing and King said the rally represented the “continued momentum and urgency” to respond to animal cruelty.

“People aren’t giving up,” King said.

The case stems from protests the group held at two locations in Petaluma: Sunrise Farms on May 29, 2018, and Reichardt Duck Farm on June 3, 2019.

The defendants are accused of taking chickens and ducks without the permission of the owners of those farms, while the activists contend they believed the animals were being mistreated.

The activists have said that California’s animal cruelty laws gave them the right to rescue animals in distress.

Owners and representatives of the affected farms have rejected the activists’ claims, and farming industry officials have said the incursions raised serious security and safety concerns for their operations.

Proceedings have been spread out over years due to routine court scheduling and delays, compounded by outside factors.

Over time, the number of defendants and charges have dropped. The case, for example, once involved charges related to a third demonstration from Sept. 29, 2018 but those were dismissed earlier this year.

As many as seven law enforcement officials and four officials associated with the farms may be called in to testify in this month’s trial, according to a trial brief filed by the District Attorney’s Office.

The prosecution and defense are both under a gag order that went into effect Sept. 1 and the defense filed a motion this week opposing the order from Judge Laura Passaglia.

“A defendant does not lose his First Amendment rights by virtue of being subject to criminal prosecution, nor does he lose his right to speak freely on matters of public concern by virtue of being an activist,” the defense wrote. “The court’s order, while unquestionably well-intentioned, was palpably unconstitutional and must be withdrawn.”

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi

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