ABA: U.S. Supreme Court Update – U.S. v. Stevens

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust

United States v. Stevens (No. 08–769)

United States Supreme Court Opinion Decided: April 20, 2010
Respondent Robert Stevens, a 68 year old author and documentary producer, owned and operated a business and associated website which sold videos of pitbull fights and pitbulls attacking other animals. Respondent Stevens was arrested and convicted of three counts of knowingly selling depictions of animal cruelty, with the intention of placing them in interstate commerce for commercial gain, following a jury trial in the District Court for Western Pennsylvania. This conviction came under 18 U.S.C. 48, which defines animal cruelty as a depiction “in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed,” §48(c)(1). The law exempts any depiction “that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” §48(b). The goal in enacting 18 U.S.C. 48 was to limit distribution of animal fighting and “crush” videos (videos of people crushing small animals to death, which allegedly appeal to a certain sexual fetish).

Prior to conviction, respondent Smith motioned to dismiss charges on the ground that 18 U.S.C 48 was facially unconstitutional as it was in violation of the first amendment protection of free speech. His motion was denied on the grounds that depictions subject to §48, like obscenity or child pornography, are categorically unprotected by the First Amendment. 2:04–cr–00051–ANB (WD Pa., Nov. 10, 2004), App. to Pet.for Cert. 65a–71a. The Third District Court of Appeals reversed. The Court of Appeals rejected the District Court’s analogy to child pornography. Further, the Court found 18 U.S.C. 48 facially unconstitutional as the statute lacked a compelling government interest and was neither narrowly tailored to preventing animal cruelty nor the least restrictive means of doing so 533 F. 3d 218.

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, finding that the banned depictions are categorically protected by the constitution, stating, “However ‘growing’ and ‘lucrative’ the markets for crush videos and dog fighting depictions might be, they are dwarfed by the market for other depictions, such as hunting magazines and videos, that we have determined to be within the scope of §48. We therefore need not and do not decide whether a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional. We hold only that §48 is not so limited but is instead substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment”.


ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

Available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-769.pdf

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