Charges dismissed in Wright County ‘ag-gag’ case
CLARION — Criminal charges against a man accused of breaking into a Wright County hog operation, placing hidden cameras and stealing a live piglet have been dismissed on the eve of his jury trial.
Matthew A. Johnson, 35, of Berkley, California, was facing charges of third-degree burglary, electronic or mechanical eavesdropping and agricultural production facility trespass.
Johnson was scheduled to go to trial in Wright County today. On Tuesday, Assistant Wright County Attorney Joseph Corrow filed a motion to dismiss all charges.
According to criminal complaints and court documents, between 1 a.m. and 3:15 a.m. on May 25, 2020, Johnson and an accomplice entered the Iowa Select Farms Hog Site Sow 117 in rural Dows without permission. Johnson and his accomplice, Linda L. Cridge, of Fishers, Indiana, placed two live video streaming cameras and one audio recording device in the hog facility. The equipment Johnson left in the facility also included external battery packs and a hotspot internet broadcaster.
As the two left the site, video surveillance footage showed Johnson carrying a live 12-pound piglet in his arms.
Johnson is a press coordinator and investigator with the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE. He later uploaded video obtained from the hidden cameras he left at the facility to the DxE website and social media to expose what DxE calls a “gruesome mass kill method” known as ventilation shutdown that was used during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when processing and packing plants were shut down, disrupting the livestock market.
Ventilation shutdown is a method of “depopulation” that involves turning off the airflow in a facility and introducing steam and heat, causing the animals to die of hyperthermia and/or suffocation, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Criminal complaints in this case also alleged that Johnson and other accomplices entered the Dows hog facility on separate occasions in the early morning hours of May 3 and May 4, 2020.
Johnson was also facing a charge of food operation trespass for allegedly trespassing at the same site around 5 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2021.
Johnson was being prosecuted under a new section of Iowa Code known as the “Iowa Ag Gag Law” put into law just prior to the Iowa Select Farms break-in. The code states that “a person commits food operation trespass by entering or remaining on the property of a food operation without the consent of a person who has real or apparent authority to allow the person to enter or remain on the property,” defining food operation as a location where food animal is produced, maintained or processed in any manner.
In a December 2021 motion to dismiss, Johnson’s defense team argued that the “Iowa Ag Gag Law is a case where the Iowa legislature has selectively chosen to prohibit certain conduct — namely, trespass at a food animal operation (but not a non-animal food operation) — because of the distinctive message of the conduct.”
He also argued that in taking the piglet, he had a “right to rescue” an animal being abused.
Johnson’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the Ag Gag Law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment was denied.
After the state filed a motion to dismiss the charges on Tuesday, two days before the trial was scheduled to begin, Johnson’s defense team filed a resistance, arguing that he “is legally entitled to have the allegations against him reviewed by a jury of his peers and to have the ‘right to rescue’ tested in a court of law.”
“Johnson is not a criminal,” the resistance brief stated. “He is a whistleblower who was exercising his constitutional right to expose abuse (including juvenile pigs being roasted alive), and to protect the most vulnerable beings in his community from suffering.”
On Wednesday, Wright County District Court Judge Derek Johnson dismissed the charges with prejudice, which means the defendant cannot be charged with these crimes for this offense again.
Cridge pleaded guilty to one count of entering an animal facility with intent to disrupt operations, an aggravated misdemeanor. Judge Derek Johnson granted a deferred judgment, placing Cridge on probation for a year. Cridge was also ordered to pay a $855 fine.