Courtroom animal advocate program laws give a voice to the voiceless

In 2006, quarterback Michael Vick was the highest-paid player in the NFL. In 2007, he was indicted in federal and state court for dog fighting. This extremely high-profile case raised awareness of the cruelty and abuse inherent in animal fighting. The public urged the judge and assistant U.S. attorney to help the dogs. While the case was typical of organized dog fighting prosecutions in many respects, there were also some unique factors involved. Most notably, in the federal case, the U.S. District Court appointed a guardian/special master to advise the court regarding the appropriate disposition of 48 dogs seized from the dog fighting operation.

The court appointed Rebecca Huss, Professor of Law at Valparaiso University School of Law, as the guardian/special master. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a national nonprofit that uses the legal system to advance animals’ interests, the Vick case was the first time that the court appointed an attorney to advocate for the animal victims in a dog fighting case. Based on her evaluation and reported recommendations, the dogs were ordered placed with eight different organizations. They began their new lives, and their rehabilitation inspired lasting policy improvements.

One such policy improvement was the amendment of some states’ laws to require evaluation of fighting animals rather than automatic euthanasia. Michigan Humane drafted and advocated for such a change to Michigan’s animal fighting statute, which passed in 2018. Another positive change brought about by this case was the introduction of Courtroom Animal Advocate Program (CAAP) laws.

CAAP law allows a judge presiding over a criminal animal abuse case to appoint a trained volunteer lawyer or supervised law student to advocate for the animal victim or victims. The ALDF describes the volunteer advocate’s duties to include “appear[ing] in court and assist[ing] the judge by drafting briefs, conducting research, gathering information from veterinarians, animal control officers, and law enforcement officials, and making recommendations on behalf of the animal victim’s interests.” The volunteer attorney or law student is independent and objective, working for neither the prosecution nor the defense, but instead serving as a voice for the animal victim or victims and representing the interests of justice.

CAAP volunteers provide invaluable assistance to the court in reaching fair and appropriate outcomes in criminal animal abuse cases. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are not necessarily familiar with the special considerations involved when animals are both victims and evidence of a crime. CAAP laws ensure that someone in the case is focused on the animals’ best interests.

Connecticut passed the first CAAP law in the country in 2016. The law was named Desmond’s Law after a dog who was adopted from a shelter and abused and ultimately strangled to death by his adopter. The defendant was sentenced to a rehabilitation program designed for nonviolent offenders, and his record was expunged upon completing the program. Advocates appalled by this outcome fought for enactment of Desmond’s Law to ensure that future animal cruelty victims would have a voice in the courtroom.

Maine was the second state to enact a CAAP law. A CAAP bill was introduced earlier this year in New Jersey and has passed the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee. Although past efforts to introduce a CAAP bill in Michigan were not successful, there is a chance that the bill will be reintroduced.

Jessica Rubin, University of Connecticut Professor of Law and Director of the UConn Animal Law Clinic, serves as an advocate and supervises law students appointed as advocates under Desmond’s Law. Reflecting on the first four years of her experience after the passage of Desmond’s Law, she said, “Desmond’s Law and similar advocacy programs enable a court to move away from an incarceration-release binary, and focus instead on the welfare of animal victims, restitution for service providers, and prevention of future harm.”

As of 2014, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least one felony statute prohibiting animal cruelty. In 2016, the FBI began separately collecting information on animal abuse crimes, and its National Incident Based Reporting System categorizes animal abuse as a crime against society. There is a well-researched connection, referred to as The Link,® between violence against animals and violence against humans. CAAP programs represent the next step based on the growing understanding of the seriousness of animal abuse and provide the legal system with a no-cost resource to thoroughly address animal cruelty cases to the benefit of both animals and people.

We are going to keep working to improve animal welfare and create a more humane community, while serving as a voice for the animals through advocacy. Together, we can continue to make a difference in animals’ lives. If you know someone who you think would be interested in this information, please encourage them to sign up for our Legislative Action Network.

Photo credit: Michigan Humane

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The link between animal abuse and human violence and its impact on animal protection laws

If you are a regular reader of this blog, I’m sure I don’t have to explain the human-animal bond. According to an AVMA survey, 85% of dog owners and 76% of cat owners consider their pets to be family members. Studies show that sharing our lives with pets can have significant mental and physical health benefits.

While all animal lovers are intuitively familiar with the human-animal bond, fewer are aware of the connection between human violence and animal abuse. Well-documented and reliable studies regarding the connection between animal abuse and human violence, which came to be known as “The Link,”® started in the mid-twentieth century.

One type of human violence associated with animal abuse is domestic violence. One study revealed that 89% of women who had animals during an abusive relationship said their animals were threatened, harmed, or killed by their abuser. Abusers exploit the human-animal bond and use it to control or harm a human victim. Victims of domestic violence often report that they have stayed in an abusive relationship out of fear of what will happen to their pets if they leave.

The Michigan statute prohibiting animal cruelty, MCL § 750.50b, was revised effective March 21, 2019. The amendments to the statute created first-, second-, and third-degree animal cruelty. First- and second-degree animal cruelty, which apply to companion animals and situations where the defendant has threatened to violate or has violated the statute “with the intent to cause mental suffering or distress to a person or exert control over a person,” acknowledge The Link® and the human-animal bond.

The statute provides the maximum penalties that can be imposed upon conviction. First-degree animal cruelty carries a maximum sentence of ten years, second degree carries a potential seven-year sentence, and third degree carries a possible four-year sentence. While these are significant sentences, typically, the sentence given rarely involves jail or prison time.

One reason for this is the Michigan statutory sentencing guidelines. In felony cases where there is no mandatory sentence, the court is required to consider the statutory sentencing guidelines. The guidelines assign points based on the defendant’s prior record (PRV) and the relevant offense variables (OVs), which are determined by crime group (crimes against persons, property, involving a controlled substance, against public order, against public safety, or against public trust). The intersection of the PRV and OV scores are then located on a grid according to crime class, which is determined by the seriousness of the offense and provides the recommended sentence, which may include jail or prison time.

Crime classes are given letter values, with Class A offenses being the most egregious. First-degree animal cruelty is a D-class offense, second-degree animal cruelty is an E-class offense, and third-degree animal cruelty is an F-class offense. Even for a D-class offense, if the defendant does not have a prior record, the sentencing guidelines will not likely generate a jail or prison sentence because of the way the OVs are scored.

Violations of MCL § 750.50b are considered crimes against property, as animals are legally property, and they are scored under the Property OVs. OVs are scored a point value based on the crime or method used in the crime. With the exception of one 5-point offense, five of the twelve current Property OVs cannot be used for animal cruelty crimes due to the use of the word “victim,” which legally is not applicable to animals. Of the remaining seven, three of those OVs are statistically unlikely to happen. Therefore, even if the defendant scored the maximum point value in the remaining four OVs (45 points), which is still unlikely, he or she would not reach the level of any jail or prison time, no matter how heinous or brutal the crime inflicted upon the animal, unless he or she also had PRV points.

Even for a conviction of first-degree animal cruelty, an OV score of 45, coupled with a PRV score of 0, would place the defendant in an intermediate sanction cell on the D-class sentencing grid. An intermediate sanction does not involve jail time.

We are collaborating with other stakeholders to propose amendments to the OVs that apply where a companion animal is the victim so that the sentencing guidelines will appropriately reflect the seriousness of these offenses and fulfill the legislature’s intent in amending the anti-cruelty statute to increase potential sentences. Intentional, violent acts of torture or death to animals should be sentenced differently than the intentional destruction of inanimate objects. Crimes against animals must be taken seriously because they are really crimes against society and are often related to violence against humans.

We are going to keep working to improve animal welfare and create a more humane community while serving as a voice for the animals through advocacy. Together, we can continue to make a difference in animals’ lives. If you know someone who you think would be interested in this information, please share this article and encourage them to sign up for our Legislative Action Network.

Photo credit: Alex Hrek, Pexels

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Importance of local laws to animal welfare

Much of Michigan Humane’s legislative advocacy work is focused on state legislation. But there are some issues that are not likely to gain statewide support, at least not initially. There are many animal-related concerns that are seen as matters more appropriate for local regulation.

Local ordinances, which are laws passed by a city council or county board of commissioners, can be an effective way to improve animal welfare in the city or county where they are passed. They can be tailored to a particular community’s needs, often with direct input from those who will be responsible for enforcing them. Such local laws may also inspire other communities to enact similar animal welfare protections, and if a number of municipalities enact an animal welfare ordinance, that may provide support for a future statewide law.

One example of a type of progressive animal welfare ordinance being passed in Michigan cities is a retail pet sale ban. These ordinances prohibit pet stores in the city in which they are passed from selling dogs and cats (and sometimes other species as well, such as rabbits, ferrets, reptiles, and birds). A handful of Michigan cities have passed such ordinances, including Eastpointe, New Baltimore, Fraser, Royal Oak and Harbor Springs. The purpose of these ordinances is to ensure that the community’s businesses are not an outlet for “puppy mills,” large-scale commercial breeders who put profits ahead of animal welfare, are not well regulated, and sell animals through pet stores.

There are generally exceptions in the ordinances for pet shops facilitating animal adoptions from shelters or rescues. An example of that is Michigan Humane’s offsite adoption partnerships.

Michigan Humane believes that local units of government should have the ability to respond to citizens’ concerns and decide whether they will allow pet retailers in their jurisdictions to source puppies, kittens, and other animals from commercial breeding operations. Cities that have already enacted ordinances preventing the retail sale of animals in pet shops have done so for the sake of the animals and also their residents, as these animals have made people sick and often come with very serious issues that require their new families to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for veterinary care and/or behavioral rehabilitation, and to face the ultimate heartbreak if their efforts are unsuccessful.   

When state legislation was introduced in the 2017-18 legislative session to prohibit local communities from regulating the retail sale of dogs, Michigan Humane and other animal welfare groups fought to protect the rights of local units of government to decide whether commercially bred puppies could be sold in pet stores in their communities. Gov. Snyder vetoed that legislation because he agreed that regulating pet sales is a matter for local control, and as a result, local units of government can pass retail pet sale bans.

St. Clair Shores became the most recent Michigan city to ban the retail sale of dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets when its city council passed a retail pet sale ban back in February. Michigan Humane testified in support of the ordinance, which passed with a unanimous vote.

Michigan Humane supports the enactment of strong legislation that, if effectively enforced, can have a long-term, positive impact on animal welfare. We encourage and support the passage of local animal welfare ordinances through a variety of means, including resources on the advocacy page on our website.

We are going to keep working to improve animal welfare and create a more humane community while serving as a voice for the animals through advocacy. Together, we can continue to make a difference in animals’ lives. If you know someone who you think would be interested in this information, please encourage them to sign up for our Legislative Action Network.

Photo credit: Samson Katt, Pexels

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