(PETS/ANIMAL LAWS) Last year, Connecticut became the first state to allow judges to appoint lawyers and law students as volunteer advocates for pets in cases involving cruelty, abuse, and neglect. Alternately, animal advocates can also be requested by a prosecutor or defense counsel.
What’s more, the volunteer advocates are authorized to conduct investigations in hopes of reinforcing prosecutors who are overburdened with cases or may consider crimes against animals to be less of a priority.
Since Desmond’s Law went into effect, volunteer advocates have been appointed in five cases, which are being closely monitored by lawmakers, legal scholars, and animal activists in hopes of adopting similar measures in other states.
The groundbreaking legislation tackles the disconnect between how people treat animals and how the law treats animals in court, and ultimately aims to convince the judiciary to treat animal cruelty as a serious crime. After all, it’s not “just a dog.”
Read on to learn more about Desmond’s Law and the fight for justice for our furry friends. — Global Animal
MANCHESTER, Conn. — Jessica Rubin’s turn to approach the judge came between drunken-driving cases and a series of procedural appearances best measured in seconds. She unspooled an account of how the police found eight pit bulls kept in filthy conditions with scars that looked like they came from staged fights. She read from a police report of the scene where an officer wrote that “words cannot describe the stench.”
Professor Rubin, who teaches law at the University of Connecticut, had come to the Superior Court here to argue against returning two of the dogs, including one that was pregnant, to a man who claimed to own them. Instead, she said, the dogs needed to be released from animal control to rescue groups.
“That’s what the advocate would recommend to the court,” Professor Rubin told the judge. “Every day that passes continues the suffering of these dogs and makes it more unlikely they can have a normal life.”
Last year, Connecticut enacted a law that, according to legal experts, made it the first state to allow judges to appoint lawyers and law students as advocates for dogs and cats in cases of cruelty, abuse and neglect. The case in Manchester was one of several that Professor Rubin and her students had been assigned to, bringing them to court regularly, almost always flanked by unofficial advocates from Desmond’s Army, the assembly of activists named for the dog whose death in 2012 inspired the law.
A rising movement in the criminal justice system has placed an emphasis on giving more of a voice to and adding support for crime victims. Across the country, judges routinely appoint advocates in cases involving children and the infirm.
The Connecticut law that includes animals, which took effect almost a year ago, is being watched closely by lawmakers, legal scholars and animal activists, some of them with an eye toward adopting similar measures in other states.
“This is really a groundbreaking law,” said David Rosengard, a staff lawyer at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that supported the legislation. “To get justice, a third voice is needed in that room.”
The advocates view their role as reinforcing prosecutors who are overburdened with cases or may consider crimes against animals to be less of a priority. Sometimes, like in Manchester, the advocates argue in court, but much of an advocate’s attention is directed at investigative efforts, like reviewing police and medical records and interviewing animal control officers and veterinarians to bolster a case.
Supporters say that many of these crimes go unprosecuted or result in punishments they contend are too lenient, such as rehabilitation programs that can end with charges being expunged. According to state crime data, of the more than 3,500 animal abuse cases reported in the decade ending in 2015, 47 percent were not prosecuted, another 33 percent were dismissed and 18 percent ended in guilty verdicts.
“What I really, really wanted to do was get at those numbers of convictions,” said Representative Diana Urban, a Democratic state lawmaker who sponsored the legislation. “They’re innocent,” she said, referring to the animals. “They don’t really have a voice, and they are, quote-unquote, a little weaker than you are.”
Ms. Urban and others argue that violence against animals often has close ties to violence against humans, either coming as a precursor to escalating crimes or indicating a home environment where there might be domestic abuse.
But the measure touches on longstanding friction in the law over animals, which have been regarded as property but also as living, feeling creatures protected from abuse. There has been opposition to the law, including from groups such as the American Kennel Club, which opposed the statute because, as the club said in a statement, “individual owners could lose these ownership rights over their animals by having to give up those rights to third parties.”
“We have this disconnect between how people handle their animals and how the law is handling their animals,” said Kathy Hessler, a clinical professor at Lewis & Clark Law School who teaches animal law. “They’re the only sentient beings that fall into the property category.”
Animal law experts said that the prosecution of Michael Vick, the professional football player who pleaded guilty in 2007 to dogfighting-related charges, served as a turning point in the acceptance of advocates for animals. In that case, a federal judge appointed a so-called special master for the dogs involved, and animal rights activists have credited the master, a law professor, with helping to spare most of them from being euthanized.
Beyond Connecticut, similar roles have been established in courts at the county level, and Rhode Island enacted a law in 2012 allowing veterinarians to serve as advocates, though the effectiveness of that legislation has been questioned.
The Connecticut law was named for and motivated by the case of Desmond, a dog that the authorities said was beaten, starved and eventually strangled and dumped by his owner. The case mobilized animal activists, who were incensed after Desmond’s owner was placed in an accelerated rehabilitation program in 2013. (The first case with an advocate to be resolved ended with that defendant placed in accelerated rehabilitation.)
Even now, Christine Kiernan, who helped organize what became Desmond’s Army, tears up when she recounts details of his case.
“This is not just about animals. It’s about stopping the cycle of violence, but it usually starts with animals,” Ms. Kiernan said. “They live. They breathe. They feel.”
The state’s Department of Agriculture maintains a list of lawyers on its website (11 and counting) who want to be advocates. But the state bureaucracy plays almost no part in managing the advocates or connecting them with animals.
That task is left almost entirely to a hodgepodge of volunteers, many of them from Desmond’s Army, including a horse farm manager, a retired I.T. worker and a teacher who considers showing up to court hearings her summer job. One week, Ms. Kiernan crisscrossed the state to attend three different court dates, always in the group’s signature purple shirt with a photograph of Desmond.
The volunteers scout for possible cases in news reports and by sifting through leads that come from an expanding network of tipsters. Then, they dispatch advocates to courtrooms across the state, where they ask a judge to consider appointing them.
“They found us,” Ashley Hanna said outside a courtroom in Middletown, where an advocate had just been appointed in the case of Hershey, her 2 1/2-year-old chocolate lab-pit bull mix. Her neighbor is accused of shooting the dog with a BB gun.
“My job is to get the judiciary to treat animal cruelty as a serious crime,” said Thompson G. Page, the lawyer named as the advocate. He noted a phrase that irritates him but says he nonetheless hears regularly: “It’s just a dog.”
“That’s the mentality we have to change,” he said.
A day later, Professor Rubin was in court in Manchester for the second time in a week. In the first appearance, the defendant surrendered any ownership claim to six of the eight pit bulls. But another man had come forward, saying that the other two belonged to him. (She believed those dogs, a female and a male, were used for breeding.)
Professor Rubin described how the dogs were found after a utility worker sent to shut off the power reported smelling a foul odor, like rotting flesh. She attempted to stir doubt about the veracity of the bills of sale for the dogs the man brought to court, and she questioned why he waited more than two months to claim the animals. She argued the dogs should go to rescue groups that were ready to take them.
The judge agreed with her.
“That, at the end of the day, is what we want,” said Professor Rubin, relieved and smiling.
In the hall outside the courtroom, an animal control officer who spoke during the hearing told Professor Rubin and the Desmond’s Army volunteers that he could have the two dogs placed in foster homes that afternoon.
The pregnant one looked like she was just days away from going into labor, the officer said. The volunteers encouraged the officer to rush to get her in a clean and comfortable place. And they requested that if there were male pups in her litter to make sure one of them was named Desmond.