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Proposal would toughen farm-trespass penalties

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People who trespass on farms and cause damage to fields, barns or equipment could face harsher penalties in the future under a proposal by state lawmakers to give farmers more protection from vandals.

What the proposal no longer includes is a ban on people taking photos or videos of farms without the owner’s permission, which had been in the bill initially and raised concerns about discouraging whistle-blowers and limiting free speech.

Lawmakers are working to add new definitions to criminal laws regarding trespassing and vandalism to give more protection to farmers, their facilities and their land. Farms would be added to a list of other facilities, such as schools and churches, that carry higher penalties if someone damages or vandalizes them. About 56 percent of the land in Johnson County, or 116,000 acres, is used for farming.

An earlier version of the proposal by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, would have allowed farmers to post signs listing acts that they didn’t want to occur on their farms and added new criminal charges if people trespassed and did some action that results in a monetary loss to the farmer. Those changes were opposed by groups such as the Hoosier State Press Association, which was concerned it would prevent people from sharing information about agricultural operations. The Daily Journal and other Indiana newspapers are members of that organization.

“It would be a chilling impact on the people who want to bring to light how agribusiness operates, whether it’s allegations of animal cruelty, whether it’s damage to the environment,” Hoosier State Press Association executive director and legal counsel Steve Key said.

About the bill

Senate Bill 101 written by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, would increase penalties for people who trespass and cause property damage on farms. Here’s what the bill will do:

Add agricultural operations to a list of other properties, such as churches and schools, where a person who causes damage to a farm can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. Currently people who damage farms can be charged with a lesser Class B misdemeanor.

Change the amount of damage needed for various criminal charges. For farms, damage of less than $750 would be a misdemeanor, and more than $750 would be a felony charge. The current limit is $250 in damage.

The proposal has since been changed and now includes penalties only for causing property damage to farms. The new law would still benefit farmers by doing more to protect their property, which doesn’t just include animal barns or equipment but also fields, according to Amy Cornell, policy adviser and counsel for Indiana Farm Bureau.

“Farms and their economic viability are often harmed by trespassers. Many farmers have had experiences where people have driven ATVs or snowmobiles on their property and have torn up tile or fence, where they just purposefully drove over the fence, and livestock was able to escape,” she said.

Currently someone could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor if they cause at least $250 of damage to property, including farm fields. Under the new law, the damage would increase to a $750 minimum, and farms would be included with other institutions, such as schools or churches, which have a higher Class A misdemeanor charge. For damage of more than $750, a person could be charged with a felony.

People out driving four-wheelers or snowmobiles may think an empty farm field is just ground, but those vehicles damage the soil and cause more work for farmers in the spring when they’re getting ready to plant, said John Canary, who farms land in southern Johnson County and raises livestock.

“We rent a lot of farm ground from absentee owners, and it’s not uncommon to drive into a field and see someone’s been through with a four-wheeler or there are people out there hunting. The big thing is people don’t understand that that may just be a snow-covered field, but that soil is living and breathing,” Canary said.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office gets about 10 calls per year from farmers who report damage to fields, but typically those calls come the next day or several days after the people who did it are long gone, Sheriff Doug Cox said. Deputies already can arrest a person they catch damaging a farm, and the new law would just make it a more serious charge, he said.

Since the proposal has been changed to address only trespassing and property damage, the Hoosier State Press Association no longer has any problem with it, Key said. In its previous form, it was unclear whether a person could be charged with a crime for taking pictures of a confined feeding operation and publishing them in a newspaper or posting them on the Internet, he said. If those photos caused a farm to lose business, that farmer could seek criminal charges, he said.

Indiana already has civil laws for libel to protect people from having their reputations damaged by claims that are untrue, he said, but the proposal could have made those same types of actions criminal.

“Now you’ve turned it into criminal. We were obviously not going to support that kind of language. Criminal defamation was eliminated in the 1970s, and we weren’t going to support an effort to bring it back into the law,” Key said.

Canary said the changes to the property damage laws will help protect farms, but he also supported restrictions on photos or videos to keep people from sneaking onto farms and taking information out of context or making untrue accusations.

“We’ve been farming in Johnson County for six or seven generations, and we’ve had livestock all that time. We know what we’re doing,” he said. “We don’t need people out trespassing and videotaping and saying what we’re doing is bad when they don’t know what’s going on.”

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