Cartons of eggs in grocery store egg case George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Spotlight back on California's Prop 2

Attorneys general seek Supreme Court review of ongoing lawsuit challenging Prop 2, while first egg producer charged criminally regarding welfare standards.

In 2008, California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, also known as Proposition 2, with 63.5% support. Prop 2 requires that an egg-laying hen must be able to fully spread her wings without touching another animal or a side of the enclosure. In the battle over the law, state attorneys general have made new promises to challenge the law, while The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) led an investigation that will bring the first charges against an egg farm for violating Prop 2.

Following voter approval of Prop 2, California's legislature passed a law that each egg-laying hen must be able to fully spread her wings without touching another hen. The law applies to states shipping shelled eggs to California.

In October 2014, a federal district court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Missouri and five other states that asked a federal court to strike down California's statute barring the sale of eggs in the state or in any other state where the eggs are produced by hens in more cramped conditions. Gary Baise, from OFW law, said the judge indicated that the complaint was insufficient legally and dismissed the complaint.

“The judge in the case indicated the complaint was so poorly drafted that she would not allow the case to be refiled or amended and dismissed it ‘with prejudice’,” Baise said, explaining that this means the states cannot amend or refile the complaint.

Baise said because the attorneys general presented a weak case pertaining to harm, the attorney general of Utah was requested by Protect the Harvest (founded by Forest Lucas to protect farmers) to file an amicus brief with appropriate affidavits showing the harm the California statute would have on the poorest of citizens in the state of Utah.

On Nov. 17, 2016, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's opinion dismissing the six states' case that sought to block the enforcement of California's laws and regulations regarding conditions for egg-laying hens. The court of appeals gave the attorneys general a victory when it said the U.S. district case should have been dismissed "without prejudice" rather than "with prejudice," which allows the lawsuit to be refiled.

Newly elected Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said his office will fight California’s attempt to regulate production practices. Hawley asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments in the challenge.

The suit -- filed with Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma -- claims that California’s out-of-state regulations violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress exclusive authority to regulate commerce among and between the states. Missouri argued in recent filings at the Supreme Court that the Constitution gives states the right to defend their citizens against out-of-state regulations.

Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst applauded Hawley for his commitment to protect Missouri agricultural interests. “This is a vital issue for Missouri farmers,” Hurst said. “If other states can tell Missouri how to farm, we will be in a world of hurt. I applaud the attorney general for standing up for Missouri’s farm families all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”

First criminal charges

The San Bernardino County, Cal., District Attorney’s Office charged Hohberg's Poultry Ranches in Ontario with 39 counts of violating the state’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. In addition to the Proposition 2 violations, Hohberg's Poultry Ranches was charged with 16 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty under Penal Code 597(b).

According to deputy district attorney Debbie Ploghaus, who oversees the Animal Cruelty Prosecution Unit, the animal cruelty charges stem from a January 2016 report to the Inland Valley Humane Society that chickens at the location were being kept in “inhumane” and “deplorable” conditions.

HSUS, the Inland Valley Humane Society and the Ontario Police Department “revealed birds locked in cramped, overcrowded cages in which they could not fully spread their wings. Decaying corpses were also found on the site, including in cages with live birds laying eggs for human consumption,” HSUS said in a statement.

As a result of an investigation conducted by the Inland Valley Humane Society and the Ontario Police Department, a warrant was served and executed at Hohberg's Poultry Ranches on Feb. 20, 2016.

“Upon serving the search warrant, we found approximately 28,800 hens in unsanitary conditions that clearly violated the Farm Animal Cruelty Act,” Ploghaus said. “In some instances, we found dead hens decaying in the same cages beside living hens laying eggs for human consumption.”

Robert Hohberg, the 70-year-old owner of Hohberg's Poultry Ranches, is scheduled to appear in court March 7, 2017. If convicted as charged, he faces up to a maximum of 180 days in county jail for each cage size violation and a year for each animal cruelty count.

The San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos also conducted a landmark prosecution of a slaughter plant that was mishandling and slaughtering non-ambulatory cows whose meat was distributed to school kids in 50 states.

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