Sebastopol City Council urges leniency in criminal case against animal activists; county leader ‘flabbergasted’ by move

The activists are accused of stealing chickens and ducks they said were being mistreated during protests in 2018 and 2019 at poultry farms near Petaluma. The animal rights activists’ case is due in court Monday.|

Sebastopol’s City Council weighed in on a long-running animal rights case, urging Sonoma County’s District Attorney to drop charges against or show leniency to activists accused of stealing chickens and ducks they said were being mistreated on poultry farms near Petaluma.

The council voted 3-2 to approve a resolution that said the four activists, who were due in court Monday, were “attempting to expose the abuses of nonhuman animals in commercial animal operations.”

The resolution, approved May 2, asked the district attorney to “instead investigate and prosecute potential violations of the law in commercial animal operations throughout California.”

The activists belong to Berkeley-based animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere. They are charged with multiple counts of second-degree burglary, conspiracy, theft, trespassing and unlawful assembly connected to demonstrations in 2018 and 2019.

Sebastopol Mayor Neysa Hinton and Council member Jill McLewis voted against the resolution, saying it was beyond the city’s purview.

“I have my own personal beliefs, but in this role, we’re policymakers,” Hinton said at an April 18 council meeting where the resolution was first discussed.

“It’s still a pending case … I’m not the prosecutor. I’m not the police,” the mayor said. “I haven’t studied the issue at all to the point where I could make a firm decision.“

McLewis said to Council member Stephen Zollman, who introduced the resolution: “I just don’t understand … why we, Sebastopol City Council members, would weigh in on something, law enforcement or whatever, that’s happening elsewhere, it’s just puzzling to me.”

Zollman said the resolution had been suggested by an attorney of a previous defendant in the case who in January agreed to a plea deal.

Activist Almira Tanner pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of trespassing during her Jan. 19 preliminary hearing with co-defendants, Wayne Hsiung, Cassandra King and Priya Sawhney.

According to Sonoma County Superior Court records, Tanner’s plea deal required her to do 100 hours of community service, pay $12,719 in restitution and stay 100 yards from Sunrise Farms, which was the site of one of the demonstrations.

If she met those conditions, according to the plea deal, her charge would be reduced to an infraction.

“The offer is irresistible,” Tanner’s attorney, Omar Figueroa, said in late January. “It’s a very good offer. If she complies with the terms, and she will, it’s looking like (the infraction’s) going to be dismissed.“

Tanner is from Vancouver, British Columbia and she entered the plea deal “to avoid draconian immigration consequences,” he added.

Zollman said Sebastopol’s resolution in support of the activists would be a message to Sonoma County District Attorney Carla Rodriguez.

“It’s to let our local district attorney know what priority we would like, to have her exercise her discretion to using our taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Prosecutors contend demonstrators forced their way into local poultry facilities and stole chickens under the guise of liberating them from allegedly harmful conditions. In 2019, they say, ducks were also stolen during demonstrations in which activists chained themselves to the property.

County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District includes the Petaluma farms the activists are alleged to have stolen the chickens and ducks from, said the council’s move “flabbergasted“ him.

“I don't mind if a jurisdiction thinks they need to pass a resolution supporting causes,” Rabbitt said. “But let the courts decide what line was crossed going forward. Have faith in the system that you're part of going forward. That's where I would draw the line.”

Sawhney, Hsuing, and Rachel Ziegler are due in Sonoma County Superior Court Monday to set a trial date. A fourth defendant, Cassie King, is now accused of eight misdemeanors after her felony charges were reduced earlier this year.

The demonstrations were at Sunrise Farms, on Liberty Road; McCoy’s Poultry Services, on Jewett Road; and Reichardt Duck Farm, on Chileno Valley Road. The activists have said that California’s animal cruelty laws gave them the right to rescue animals in distress.

“I have no concerns about the city of Sebastopol, our ability, our standing, our authority to take a position on this issue,” Vice Mayor Diana Rich said.

The Sebastopol resolution was based on a similar one the Berkeley City Council approved in 2019. San Francisco passed its own resolution in support of the activists in 2020.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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