A well-known animal rescue group broke the law when it secretly video recorded the killings of pigs at a farm in West Miami-Dade accused of running an illegal slaughterhouse, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The ruling delivers a major setback for prosecutors who have long relied on hidden videos recorded by Animal Recovery Mission, known as ARM, a private South Florida nonprofit group that frequently goes undercover to chronicle animal abuse.
The group’s sleuthing has led to a series of high-profile animal abuse arrests, most in rural stretches of Northwest Miami-Dade where unregulated slaughterhouses have flourished. But the group’s tactics — posing as customers, while later donning SWAT-style uniforms — have come under frequent scrutiny in criminal court.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy ruled that ARM investigators broke a Florida law that requires permission before recording someone in a private setting — in this case, a ranch near the Everglades that was selling meat during the holiday season in 2014.
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Tueday’s ruling means that future jurors in the case against Yonisley Garcia won’t be able to view the photos or the gruesome videos of slaughterhouse workers shooting pigs, hitting them with sledgehammers, dragging them by hooks and even boiling them alive.
WARNING: VIDEO FEATURES GRAPHIC CONTENT
“This vigilante group cannot secretly record you without consent,” Garcia’s attorney, George Pallas, said on Tuesday.
Prosecutors are now weighing whether to appeal. ARM investigators, who are not sworn law enforcement, can still testify at a future trial. Garcia is charged with eight counts of felony animal abuse.
“Even without the videos, we have full faith in our case and will be proceeding forward,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith.
Richard Couto, who founded ARM in 2010, could not be reached for comment. On its website, the group touts itself as an “unstoppable force and voice for abused and tortured animals worldwide.”
Florida law allows secret recordings only by law enforcement, or someone acting as an agent for the law. ARM investigators are not trained police officers, and generally turn over videos and evidence to police after they have completed their investigations.
In three other criminal cases, judges have refused to throw out the undercover videos, according to the group. That includes the case of Jorge Garcia, who was sentenced in April to one year in prison for running an illegal slaughterhouse in Palm Beach County.
Prosecutions in ARM cases have not always gone smoothly.
In the 2011 case of Rudesino “Rudy” Acosta, who faced up to 85 years in prison, his defense team attacked Couto’s tactics and credibility, as well as the conduct of prosecutors in the case.
The state ultimately agreed to allow Acosta to accept no prison time but complete 10 years of probation. The conviction will not show on his record.
In another highly publicized case earlier this year, Miami slaughterhouse operator Gregorio Santa Ana challenged Florida’s animal-cruelty law, saying it was vague and unconstitutional. Under the law, his lawyer wrote, someone could even be prosecuted for boiling a lobster.
“The simple fact is that slaughterhouses are designed to kill, slaughter and inflict pain upon animals to be prepared for food for humans,” his defense lawyer, Robert Barrar wrote, in fighting the law.
But Santa Ana ultimately dropped his fight, instead accepting five years of probation.
In the latest case, Garcia and two others were arrested in March 2014 after an investigation that ARM dubbed “Operation Noche Buena.” That’s Spanish for Christmas Eve, when roast pig is in demand with many Hispanic families.
The arrest warrant spilled over with grisly details: “On video surveillance, pigs can be seen being dragged, hook-mouthed through the jaw, at distances of approximately 150 feet, all while the animals remain alive.”
In one example, an undercover operative agreed to buy a boar, which was then shot with a “small-caliber” rifle. The animal did not die, but instead thrashed and kicked for three minutes as it was dragged over 150 feet, the warrant said.
One man arrested, Raul “Freaky” Fernandez, 53, pleaded guilty and is serving 18 months in prison. Another man, Yurianne “Elvin” Hervis-Gonzalez, is still awaiting trial.