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B.C.'s highest court throws out jail sentences for hog farm activists

Protesters occupy a barn at Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, B.C., on Sunday April 28, 2019. Approximately 50 people gathered inside a barn and another 135 individuals protested on the rural road outside the farm after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video that it says shows dead piglets as well as fully grown pigs with growths and lacerations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck Protesters occupy a barn at Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, B.C., on Sunday April 28, 2019. Approximately 50 people gathered inside a barn and another 135 individuals protested on the rural road outside the farm after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video that it says shows dead piglets as well as fully grown pigs with growths and lacerations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
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A pair of animal rights activists in British Columbia will not serve any jail time after the province's highest court tossed out a lower court ruling on the couple's illegal entry and occupation of a Fraser Valley hog farm.

Amy Soranno and Nick Schafer were initially sentenced to 30 days behind bars, followed by 12 months of probation, after the married couple were found guilty of mischief and breaking and entering after they led a large-scale protest at the Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford in April 2019. The 30-day sentence was to be served intermittently, typically on weekends. 

The pair appealed their conviction in January but were unsuccessful in convincing the court that alleged evidence of animal cruelty, had it been allowed to be presented at trial, would have provided a viable defence against the charges they faced.

Failing in that appeal, Soranno and Schaefer appealed their jail sentence, which the Appeal Court panel agreed should be set aside in favour of 120 days of house arrest, followed by a year of probation.

In reaching its decision Monday, the three-judge Appeal Court panel found the trial judge did not actually err in his decision to incarcerate the activists. However, recent legislative amendments now permit conditional sentences to be imposed in such cases.

The activists were sentenced in October 2022, less than a month before a provision allowing a conditional sentence for breaking and entering into a non-dwelling was repealed on Nov. 17 of that year.

"Unlike in a case where the sentencing judge commits a true error in principle, when there is an amendment to the Criminal Code that permits a previously unavailable sentence, the appeal court should proceed to re-sentence 'in light of the new principles,'" Justice Susan Griffin wrote in the court's decision to overturn the jail sentence.

The judge went on to note that jail sentences for similar cases are rare.

"There appear to be few precedents resulting in a custodial sentence involving like circumstances," Griffin wrote on behalf of the panel.

"There are cases where protesters have continued a protest in the face of a court order, and then faced contempt charges and convictions," she wrote. "In some of those cases, jail sentences have been imposed. However, those cases are of limited utility in sentencing the appellants. Here, the appellants were not deliberately breaching a court order."

Protest sparked by PETA video

The 2019 protest, in which Schafer and Soranno "organized busloads of people to come to the farm" to "overwhelm anyone who might resist their presence," Griffin wrote, was sparked by the dissemination of a disturbing video by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The video, which PETA said was filmed surreptitiously at the Excelsior farm, showed sick and dead animals, and prompted an investigation by the SPCA, however no animal cruelty charges were recommended.

Animal Justice, Canadian non-profit group that lobbies for stronger animal protection laws and enforcement, applauded the Appeal Court decision, calling the actions of the protesters "a peaceful sit-in" and a "non-violent act of civil disobedience."

"It's a relief that these two whistleblowers will not face jail time, but where's the justice for pigs?" Camille Labchuk, executive director for Animal Justice said in a statement.

Schafer and Soranno, under the conditions of their house arrest, must not come within five kilometres of the Excelsior Hog Farm, must not visit any agricultural property where the primary activity is the raising of animals or food, and must remain in B.C. unless they have written permission from the court to leave the province.

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