The Tough Civics Lesson for Americans in Michael Schmidt’s Jailing

It’s sometimes said that a picture is worth a thousand words. That is certainly the case with the photo of Michael Schmidt at left, taken after Schmidt stripped down as required upon entering an Ontario prison yesterday, where he is spending his second of 13 weekends.

Schmidt is doing jail time ostensibly for interfering with a regulator raid on his farm two years ago, for the purpose of confiscating/stealing food and equipment. But, bigger picture (not the picture here), Schmidt is in year 23 of legal assaults by Ontario and Canadian government agencies designed to prevent him from making raw dairy products available to the shareholders of his farm, and punish and humiliate him in the process. Yes, these assaults—raids, court hearings, trials, and now a prison sentence—have been going on for 23 years.

Yet seeing these shocking photos of protest by Schmidt raise a big question for me, a question that is especially relevant in the hysterical political climate engulfing the U.S. these days:

Why doesn’t America have a Michael Schmidt equal, a farmer who is a political prisoner? After all, raw milk availability has been just as contentious an issue in the U.S. as in Canada. There have been surprise raids, court suits, and trials. We have the same Big Dairy influences as Canada. And we have the farmer candidates—Alvin Schlangen, Vernon Hershberger, Amos Miller, Mark McAfee—who have been threatened with criminal charges.

Yet they are all walking around free and continuing to make their raw dairy products available, while Michael Schmidt continues to be hounded and even thrown in jail. 

The only way to explain it is through a very quick course in Civics 101. The main reason American farmers haven’t gone to jail is that the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution—the first ten amendments— has kept them out of jail.  Those amendments were tacked onto the Constitution after the actual body of the Constitution had been worked out in Philadelphia in 1787. The Bill of Rights was demanded by a number of politicians, led by James Madison, before they would ratify the Constitution, because of the bad memories people had of abuses by the British when America was a colony

These ten amendments provide for some of our best known freedoms— freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms,  and the prohibitions against self incrimination and search and seizure without a warrant. Those ten amendments also include several lesser known rights that have kept accused American farmers out of jail:

  1. Trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment provides that in criminal cases, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…” It was jury trials that acquitted Alvin Schlangen in Minneapolis in 2012 and Vernon Hershberger in Baraboo, WI, in 2013.  In his 23 years as a target of various government accusations, Schmidt has never been able to get a jury trial. Why not? Because it’s not guaranteed under Canadian law, as it is in the U.S.
  2. Prohibition on double jeopardy. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from trying an accused individual twice for the same crime. In other words, once a judge or jury acquits you, that’s it. But that’s not the case in Canada. Schmidt was actually acquitted by a judge of a variety of charges in connection with the sale of raw milk back in 2009. But, alas, the government appealed the acquittal—something that would be impossible in the U.S.—and he was convicted by a court of appeals.
  3. Other requirements. The Fifth Amendment includes a requirement of “due process”, the Sixth Amendment includes the right to confront witnesses against you, and the Eighth Amendment includes a prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Various of these protections have come into play in cases involving Mark McAfee and Amos Miller. In his Canadian court cases, Schmidt has come up against a government playing fast and loose with due process, like disappearing emails.

America has its rights because it fought for them via a bloody eight-year war of independence from 1775 to 1783. Canada remained tethered to the British empire, and while it gained pretty much the same rights that England has today, it doesn’t have the same foundation and commitment to rights of the U.S. 

The expansion of federal power has eroded some of Americans’ rights under the Bill of Rights, such as in the area of searches and seizures and the right against “cruel and unusual punishment.” But rarely have our rights been under as intensive an assault as with the new administration, with the President threatening to go after freedom of the press and seeming to infringe on freedom of religion with his legal attacks on Muslims and his embrace of white supremacists.

Next time some of you here get caught up in the hysteria of the official scapegoating that has been going on in the U.S.—and a number of food rights supporters, including even some of the acquitted farmers have been caught up—stop a minute and think about Michael Schmidt, and how precious our rights look to him locked up in an Ontario prison this weekend. And maybe honor Thanksgiving by appreciating those rights….while we still have them.

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