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Delays continue in criminal case of animal activists accused of taking chickens from Petaluma poultry farms

A preliminary hearing began last year but has been delayed numerous times. It was postponed again Tuesday.|

For the umpteenth time, court proceedings were delayed in the yearslong case of four activists accused of entering poultry farms near Petaluma and stealing chickens they believed were being mistreated.

On Tuesday, defendants Wayne Hsiung, Cassandra King, Priya Sawhney and Almira Tanner were scheduled to continue a preliminary hearing that began last November but the hearing was delayed for various scheduling conflicts and an illness.

On Tuesday, the defense said King’s attorney, Orchid Vaghti, had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, proceedings were rescheduled to Jan. 18.

The four defendants said they are eager to resolve matters and remain steadfast that they were justified in their actions during demonstrations that took place in 2018 and 2019.

“They’re pioneers of sorts,” Chris Andrian, Sawhney’s attorney, said of his client’s and her co-defendants’ efforts to raise awareness about the treatment of chickens.

He added, “They are trying to bring attention to things we don’t want to pay attention to.”

Hsiung, King, Sawhney and Tanner are members of Direct Action Everywhere, a Berkeley-based animal welfare group focused on bringing attention to the suffering of commercially raised animals and providing them with relief.

Members of the controversial organization recently gained notoriety by disrupting NBA games, including a Minnesota Timberwolves game where a member attempted to glue her hand to the basketball court.

The defendants are charged with multiple counts of second-degree burglary, conspiracy, theft, trespassing and unlawful assembly related to the demonstrations in 2018 and 2019.

The first demonstration took place May 29, 2018, at Sunrise Farms, northwest of Petaluma on Liberty Road. About 500 people participated and members removed dozens of chickens.

Civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represents Hsiung, previously said the group received whistleblower videos and photos indicating birds on the farm were in poor health.

They argue that their efforts to rescue chickens are authorized under California’s animal cruelty law, which makes it legal to break into a closed car to save a dog from overheating or free a chained pet in danger of freezing in a backyard.

Last year, Mike Weber, who co-owns Sunrise Farms, testified that the activists entered two buildings on his property and did not follow biohazard safety protocols intended to prevent introduction of diseases to his flock, such as undergoing footwear disinfection.

A second demonstration took place Sept. 29, 2018, at McCoy’s Poultry Services on Jewett Road and about 15 chickens were taken from the farm. About 67 people were arrested, including the four defendants.

A third protest, which happened at Reichardt Duck Farm, west of Petaluma, took place on June 3, 2019, and had 300 demonstrators. Nearly 100 of them were arrested, mostly on suspicion of trespassing and conspiracy, officials said.

Hsiung, King, Sawhney and Tanner acknowledged Tuesday there’s been little progress in their case and Schwaiger lamented that five years of resources have been used.

“Everyone wants this case to move forward,” he said after Tuesday’s hearing.

Although local proceedings have moved at a snail’s pace, the defense touted a positive outcome in a similar case involving Hsiung in Utah last month.

A jury acquitted him of charges of burglary and theft related to the 2017 removal of two piglets from the Circle Four Farms in Beaver County to document the use of gestation crates, which are considered cramped and cruel.

The outcome “invigorated” the defendants in the Sonoma County case, Andrian said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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