House lawmakers capped off the second week of the ongoing legislative session by approving funding for mental health crisis receiving centers in rural Utah, and amending court defenses after animal activists were found not guilty after taking sick piglets from a Beaver County farm.
Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, who is sponsoring HB114, said his bill is an effort to protect farmers and agriculture producers from activists he says are trying to raise money off of publicity gained from high-profile acts of "vigilantism."
The activists were on trial for taking sick piglets from Circle Four Farms in Milford, Beaver County, in March 2017, which was part of a larger effort by Direct Action Everywhere. It was an attempt to expose issues surrounding the treatment of livestock at what the group purports as the largest pig farm in the world, owned by Smithfield Foods.
Albrecht's bill would prevent theft suspects from using the defense that the animal is sick, injured, or a liability to the owner. Defense attorneys would still be allowed to bring that argument as part of a defense, but it wouldn't be a legal defense the prosecution would have to rebut, Albrecht said.
"Farmers need to be protected from burglary and theft," Albrecht said. "Activists don't have the right to declare themselves inspectors and then engage in private vigilantism."
Supporters of the bill said it applies only to livestock, not domestic animals, and it doesn’t impact a person’s ability to, for example, rescue a dog that is locked in a car on a hot day. Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, said people should not be allowed to steal animals just because they are sick or injured.
"Try as I might, I can't see how that hurts animals," he said.
"Folks sometimes have good intentions, but lack of experience isn't allowing people to make the best judgment," when they see livestock that may be sick or injured, said Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen.
HB114 passed the House 65-4 — with Democratic Reps. Joel Briscoe (Salt Lake City), Sandra Hollins (Salt Lake City), Carol Spackman Moss (Holladay) and Angela Romero (Salt Lake City) in opposition — and will head to the Senate for consideration.
Rural mental health funding
The House also approved HB66, which provides nearly $16 million in grant funding to set up mobile crisis outreach teams and up to two mental health crisis receiving centers in rural Utah. Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said the plan is to add two crisis centers in Cache County and the Uintah Basin, from where patients are often taken to hospitals on the Wasatch Front to receive emergency mental health care.
It would also fund up to five mobile crisis outreach teams for even smaller communities that will likely never be able to support permanent centers.
Eliason said the facilities in Utah with the greatest number of psychiatric patients are prisons and jails because law enforcement officers have been the default responders to mental health crises.
"Sending somebody to jail for a mental health emergency has been done for far too long," he said.
Chew thanked Eliason for changing an earlier version of the bill to provide more resources to those in rural Utah.
"It's going to help rural Utah a lot more, and we appreciate that," he said.
HB66 passed the House unanimously and will head to the Senate for further consideration.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Rep. Doug Owens changed his mind on the bill once he realized it was limited to livestock. A spokesperson for Owens clarified that Owens was making the point that it should not be legal to steal animals simply because they are sick or injured.