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Sen. Jim Norman scales back bill that inadvertently criminalized farm photography

TALLAHASSEE — One of the first bills Jim Norman proposed as a state senator targets animal-rights activists who sneak onto farms to capture footage of agricultural practices they consider cruel.

But when initially filed, the Tampa Republican's legislation would have triggered a first-degree felony charge — the same level for rape or murder — for anyone who took photos or video of a farm or its animals without the property owner's consent.

So photographers, journalists, law enforcement officers — even motorists pulling over to capture a pastoral roadside scene — could have been charged along with groups like Mercy for Animals or the Humane Society.

"That was never the intent," Norman said.

The New York Times called it "croparazzi," and news of the bill gained Internet buzz. But Monday, a heavily amended version of SB 1246 unanimously passed the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The revised bill provides exceptions for law enforcement officers and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agents conducting inspections or investigations. It also stipulates that photography would be illegal if it happened upon entering the property without written consent, so photographs by road or air are okay.

And with Norman's approval, an amendment from Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, downgraded the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Even with the updates, animal-rights activists were unhappy.

"The amendment simply replaces one absurd bill with another absurd bill," said Jeff Kerr, general counsel of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "This bill would aid and abet criminal animal abuse."

Undercover investigations of farms have historically led to industry reforms, and this bill threatens to end a consumer service, said Jennifer Hobgood, Florida state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Norman said he's trying to protect farmers from "unfair outside assaults" on their intellectual and private property rights.

"They may have very unique components of their operation," Norman said in an interview. "It's very unfair to have those filmed, taped and exposed without the permission of the owner."

Norman filed the one-page bill at the urging of East Pasco egg farmer Wilton Simpson, who recently filed paperwork to run for state Senate.

Simpson, 44, fears activists will invade Florida farms and gather footage for public campaigns to replicate a 2008 California constitutional amendment that bans confinement of animals where they can't stand, sit, lie down, turn around and stretch their limbs, starting in 2015.

"We need certain protections from people who do not want us to exist," Simpson said. "I'm trying to do something that protects the state of Florida."

Siplin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, assured members Monday that egg farms are clean and sanitary, findings based on his trip to another Simpson farm last week. Florida farmers, he said, need their production methods protected.

After the meeting, Siplin said he was unaware Simpson's concerns spurred Norman's bill.

"I didn't know they were friends," he said. "I had an interest in it, so I asked the staff to organize it."

Also at issue? Greenbelt exemptions.

Will Shepherd, general counsel for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser, said his office uses photographs in investigations to verify the agricultural tax exemptions.

The office inspects thousands of greenbelted properties in Hillsborough County every year, he said. Many would be rejected without the option of getting on properties and taking pictures.

Although investigators typically ask for — and receive — permission, Shepherd said he doesn't think that's a requirement.

"We sort of feel that when you sign a greenbelt application you give the property appraiser the right to go out and confirm things," he said. "This will make their jobs tremendously more difficult."

Lawmakers could avoid causing the office administrative pain by granting property appraisers unrestricted access, too, he said.

The House is watching to see what happens to Norman's bill before making a companion version, said Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, chairman of the committee that deals with agriculture policy.

Kerr said PETA's efforts to expose inhumane farm practices will continue even if Norman's bill becomes law. "We're going to continue to do what we need to do to expose criminal animal abuse," Kerr said. "We think this bill is unconstitutional and won't stand scrutiny."

Times/Herald staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Sen. Jim Norman scales back bill that inadvertently criminalized farm photography 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 11:45pm]

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