A measure to increase penalties against people who trespass on farms passed an Indiana House committee Monday despite hesitance from opponents who say the bill could be construed to crack down on whistleblowers.
The bill, approved 8-4 along party lines by the House Judiciary Committee, would make trespassing on the production area of farm property a criminal offense and causing property damage to a farm an act of criminal mischief.
The measure, which passed the Senate late last month, was repeatedly revised in that chamber after the Hoosier State Press Association and animal rights advocacy groups blasted it as an attempt to restrict whistleblowers regarding animal treatment, particularly at factory farms. Earlier versions would have banned videotaping or photography without permission.
In its current form, the bill would protect farmers from mushroom hunters and other trespassers who could damage crops, supporters argue.
"Apparently it's a crime to enter my house and spend a couple hours in my house even if you're not damaging anything, but it's not a crime to come into my woods or my cornfields," state Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, said before voting in favor of the bill. "I don't understand the distinction. I think it should be the same either way."
Opponents remain wary of the revised legislation. State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, and the Hoosier Environmental Council have questioned the need for the bill when such trespassing protections are already in place.
"The blatant First Amendment concerns seem to be removed," HEC staff attorney Kim Ferraro said, adding "it's an unnecessary measure."
One word in particular drew criticism from opponents: "property." The bill labels any damage done to property on a farm as criminal mischief, which could range from stealing corn stalks for Halloween decorations to snapping unflattering pictures of farm production.
That language, state Rep. Ed Delaney said, is similar to last year's effort.
"I think this is last year's bill," Delaney, D-Indianapolis, said. "That's my problem."
The bill now heads to the full House. Approval from both the House and governor is needed for the bill to become law.