A Connecticut court ruled this week that a law criminalizing attendance at animal fights doesn’t violate the First Amendment rights of free assembly and free association.
The defendant in the case had $900 in cash on him when he was arrested at a cockfight in Waterbury. He was charged with a general gambling offense and two counts of animal cruelty—the first for acting as a spectator and the second for wagering on the cockfight. Not content to accept these charges, he filed a lawsuit claiming that the spectator law violated his constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The right of peaceable assembly is just as fundamental as the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press, but its protection doesn’t extend to every assembly of people, and it obviously excludes assemblies that are intended to incite violence or promote crime. The defendant contended that he wasn’t partaking in an unlawful activity by attending the cockfight, but merely assembling with others who may or may not have been actively involved in the cockfight. The court didn’t buy this argument though, concluding that, “as a spectator at a cockfight, an individual is engaged in promoting and facilitating the existence of the unlawful conduct.”
The right of association protects intimate relationships and expressive activities encompassed by the First Amendment (e.g., speech, assembly, and religious exercise). Attending a cockfight didn’t fall within either of these protections, the court held. It didn’t share any of the traditional markers of intimate associations, like being limited to a relatively small number of people, being highly selective, or excluding others from critical aspects of the relationship. Nor did it involve any expressive association protected by the First Amendment, as the spectators weren’t engaged in some broader public discourse about cockfighting.
The defendant also claimed that the law was unconstitutionally “overreaching,” but the court dismissed this argument because it only applied to people who knowingly acted as spectators at animal fights. The law was generally valid, the court continued, because it was rationally related to the state’s objective of eliminating animal cruelty. After all, “without the knowing presence of spectators, much of the ‘sport’ of cockfighting would be eliminated.”
In his final claim, the defendant argued that the law violated his right to equal protection because it punished spectators at cockfights but not spectators of other illegal conduct. The court disagreed, reiterating that the law had a rational relationship to the state’s interest in preventing animal cruelty and that it only had to be reasonable to survive the defendant’s equal protection challenge.
State v. Bonilla, 2011 Conn. App. LEXIS 469 (Sep. 13, 2011).
Courts in Colorado, North Carolina, and Tennessee have also upheld laws criminalizing attendance at animal fights. People v. Bergen, 883 P.2d 532 (Colo. App. 1994); State v. Arnold, 147 N.C. App. 670 (2001), State v. Tabor, 678 S.W.2d 45 (Tenn. 1984).