If you are more than a casual follower of animal news, you were aware of and appalled by two recent animal abuse cases. One involved a dog, subsequently named Libre, which was left to die of a treatable illness by his breeder owner. The other was a case of a horse being overworked to the point of collapse, then beaten to the point of death, then “euthanized”.
Shock and outrage ensued. Pennsylvania is ever so good at shock and outrage when it comes to animals. Next came the inevitable call: More prosecutions, stronger laws! Something must be done.
It makes sense. When we see terrible things happen we want to make sure they not happen again. We want the perpetrators punished. We want them to be punished severely. Often, new laws or strengthened laws seem to be the answer. We did not have to wait long before the calls for “Libre’s Law” rose and the response came from Harrisburg. Drafts of a strengthened animal cruelty law were flying and at the center of them were stronger penalties for animal cruelty convictions, increasing the penalties for nearly every instance of cruelty from a summary to a misdemeanor offense, and inserting provisions to include horses in the cruelty laws more explicitly. Good ideas.
There’s just one problem. If the current draft versions of “Libre’s Law” were passed, it would result in less criminal investigation and prosecution, not more. In getting the law we are asking for we will get an unintended result we do not want.
Why? Because Pennsylvania has long shirked its duty to animals on a State level. Police and DA’s have never viewed animal welfare as something they had time to respond to in the face of other “real” crimes and State Dog Wardens are legally prohibited from filing cruelty charges. So decades ago, the quasi-police role of Humane Society Police Officer (HSPO) was created. It allowed individuals associated with an animal welfare organization to obtain about 160 hours of training, get sworn in by County Courts with the blessing of a County DA, and enforce the very limited portion of the PA crimes code dealing with animal cruelty, PA 5511.
I’ll set aside the fact that shelters have to pay for the privilege of doing the State’s work since I’ve covered that at length before. At least animals had someone looking out for them and under this arrangement the vast majority of criminal animal cruelty prosecutions were handled by HSPO’s, thousands or even tens of thousands a year across Pennsylvania. It is not a perfect system, but it’s something. It’s certainly better than nothing, which is what we’d have in its absence.
Then what’s wrong with the new proposals to increase the penalties for animal cruelty from a summary offense to misdemeanor offenses? It has to do with how the current laws are written. HSPO’s may only prosecute in the case of a summary offense. Anything above that requires prosecution by police and the DA. You know, the ones who have already dumped the job on shelters. As a result of the effort to smack down animal abusers we would be ensuring that HSPO’s, the only officers solely interested in helping animals, would not be able to prosecute anyone.
That’s one hell of an unintended consequence. Some may say- and have said- naively, “But won’t local District Attorneys and police be willing to help?” We already have our answer from experience. No. Hundreds of citations and prosecutions a year, thousands in some areas? There are certainly many animal friendly police and prosecutors out there, but do we want to cross our fingers that on any given day we will have one of them respond?
The reality is, the current system has more teeth than prosecutors, judges, and legislators want to admit or employ. If these teeth bit to the fullest extent possible, we could have some serious penalties imposed. Summary offenses can have a jail sentence of up to 90 days. Some may say that’s not enough and they are probably right. But our judges aren’t giving one day as a rule, let alone 90. Why would we think they’ll give more when it’s a misdemeanor? Will Libre’s breeder get jail time even though he could under current law? We know that the man who beat the horse to death pleaded guilty and received only a fine of $750. Not one hour in jail, not even community service. That’s not the law’s problem, that’s the judicial system’s problem.
Some say that the current law doesn’t allow for prosecution in enough cases. But even when it does, police and District Attorneys often choose not to prosecute. The first officer contacted about the beaten horse claimed he couldn’t prosecute because the perpetrator was Amish. What? There’s not an “Amish Cruelty Exemption”. Subsequently, the State Police filed cruelty charges. So a man who beats a horse nearly to death in public, on camera, wasn’t prosecuted at first even when current law permitted it.
In the Libre case the world came out strong against the perceived perpetrator…the Humane Society Police Officer? That officer certainly didn’t do what she should have. But why was she the only one expected to do this? Where were the police, where were the Dog Wardens, where was the District Attorney? Animal cruelty is a crime but it’s handed off to animal shelter employees to handle until something goes wrong. Then the law enforcement community and the world beats up on the under-trained, under-resourced, underappreciated- but still the only one doing the damn job- Humane Society Police Officer. Oh, and by the way, HSPO’s are also the only ones who can be sued, since they don’t even have the same protections from lawsuit as the police. Aren’t they lucky!
Trashing a mediocre officer is the easy route. Recognizing that no one was stopping local District Attorneys and local or State police from stepping up and actually doing the job themselves, or the legislature from directing resources toward enforcement, seems to be a little bit harder.
If we want to help animals like Libre and the unnamed horse, we don’t necessarily need upgraded laws which will likely be challenged in court. Even small changes of terms and definitions opens the door to new challenges as old precedents get thrown out along with the old law. We need to enforce the current laws to the max. We don’t need law enforcement to act like they are doing the world a favor by stepping in and taking over the responsibility for enforcing cruelty law- it is their responsibility! We don’t need to increase penalties which aren’t being imposed by judges, we need to make the judges impose the current maximum penalties.
And we certainly don’t need to tinker with a law that sort of works in a way which ensure it will never actually work as intended. By inadvertently removing HSPOs from the equation in order to satisfy our need to do something we ensure that crimes against animals will go unprosecuted, more animals will suffer, and HSPOs will have their hands tied.
These proposals won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. They throw out the baby and keep the filthy bathwater.