Supreme Court Rules Law That Led to W.Pa. Conviction Unconstitutional

By Bowling, Brian | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Rules Law That Led to W.Pa. Conviction Unconstitutional


Bowling, Brian, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


A federal law aimed at making it a crime to produce or sell animal cruelty videos reaches beyond its intended target and is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in an appeal of a Western Pennsylvania conviction.

The 1999 law was intended to stop the creation and sale of "crush" videos, showing animals stomped or squeezed to death as part of a sexual fetish, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 8-1 majority opinion. Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh used the law in January 2005 to convict Robert J. Stevens of Pittsville, Va., for selling dogfighting videos through an underground magazine.

Roberts said that prosecution exceeded the intent of the law and undermines the government's claim that zealous prosecutors would not use the statute to go after hunting and fishing magazines or shows.

"The government hits this theme hard, invoking its prosecutorial discretion several times," Roberts wrote. "But the First Amendment protects against the government; it does not leave us at the mercy of noblesse oblige. We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promised to use it responsibly."

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2008 overturned Stevens' conviction on a 10-3 vote. The Supreme Court's ruling upholds that decision.

Patricia Millet, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented Stevens in the appeal, said the ruling's detailed analysis shows the Supreme Court has respect for legislative power, but "has enormous respect for the First Amendment, and that's what prevailed today."

Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh, declined comment. …

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