A Look Into The Final Language of Animal & Taxpayer Protection Bill, HB 459 (SB 77-FN)
After years of exhaustive efforts and a long campaign full of twists and turns, a crucial bill protecting animals, taxpayers and nonprofits has officially been adopted by the New Hampshire Senate and the House, and will soon be on its way to the Governor's desk for signature.
The legislation, created to reduce long-term sheltering of animal abuse victims, help prevent future animal ownership of convicted abusers, and mitigate the immense financial burden on nonprofits and taxpayers to cover the cost of care for animals seized as part of cruelty cases, was officially passed for the last time today with a voice vote by the House.
SB 77-FN was tabled by the House in May, but the language of the bill was added to HB 459 by the Senate. The language then went through a committee of conference, in which the House and Senate came to a compromise; leading to the House's vote to officially adopt the bill.
The following are the details of the animal cruelty and health certificate sections of HB 459, which includes the language of SB 77-FN, as amended by Senate [0660s, 3/07/19], along with the compromises made with the House when it was added to HB 459 [1976s, 2258s, 5/23/19] and during the committee of conference [2614-CofC, 6/19/19], and what it accomplishes for animals, nonprofits and taxpayers. The final version of the bill may be viewed here [2614-CofC, As adopted by both bodies].
NH Passes Bill Protecting Animals and Taxpayers
1. Requires Status Hearing Within 14 Days of The Seizure of Animals
The bill requires that the courts hold a status hearing within 14 days of the lawful seizure of animals in cruelty cases. This will allow the Prosecution and the Defense to have an accelerated and organized discussion in front of the judge about the care of the animals for the duration of the trial. The hearing will not involve the defendant's guilt or innocence, nor will it impact their right to a jury trial, or the length of the trial itself. Click here for more on why this is crucial (see problem 1/solution 1). The term initially used in the bill was 'preliminary hearing,' which was changed to 'status hearing' as a compromise with the House during the Committee of Conference, which does not change the intent.
2. Establishes Cost of Care / Appeal Bond Deadline - Preventing Prolonged Animal Ownership by Those Convicted, Who Aren't Contributing to Cost of Care
Under current law [644:8 IV (b)], if a Defendant convicted of animal cruelty files an appeal, the court may impose a bond of up to $2,000 per animal for the cost of their care, to maintain ownership throughout the appeal; meaning that if left unpaid, their ownership is forfeited. However, there was no deadline on that bond, making it unenforceable. HB 459 requires that if a court imposes a bond (after consideration of the animal owner's income), that it is paid within 30 days, or the animals will be forfeited; giving them the chance to find appropriate, forever homes and ceasing the draining of nonprofit and taxpayer funds. The Senate proposed a timeframe of 14 days, which was extended to 30 as a compromise for the House, and also includes an additional 15 days, which the court may grant, for good cause. Click here for more information and why this is essential (see problem 2/solution 2).
3. Prohibits Animal Ownership by Convicted Felony-Level Abusers For 5 Years
This clarifies that the court may prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty from owning or residing with animals. It also requires that the court prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor or felony-level bestiality, or any other felony cruelty, from owning or residing with animals for a minimum of 5 years. Click here for more information (see problem 3/solution 3).
4. Requires Health Certificates
This reimplements a previous NH law [RSA 437:10, I], which required that pet vendors protect animals from infectious diseases (via vaccination) and obtain health certificates (signed by a licensed veterinarian) before transferring/selling a dog, cat or ferret. The requirement helps prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals, as well as the spread of disease.
This section was not included initially, as it was addressed in a separate bill (SB 161 / HB2). However, the House Environment and Agriculture Committee added the section to SB 77-FN, which is appreciated, and the Senate kept the section in the bill when adopted as part of HB 459.
Noteworthy is that the House proposed that pet vendors provide a copy of the certificate to the Department of Agriculture (DOA) upon their request. Although the DOA often openly works with and provides support to pet vendors regarding concerns, obtaining certificates via request from pet vendors directly could alert them of potential investigations. The Senate's language requires that the signing veterinarian provide a copy of the certificate upon the DOA's request and that was the language agreed to by the Committee of Conference, and currently included in the bill.
5. Prohibits 'Permanent Altering' of Animals Pending Final Disposition
This prohibits the neuter/spay or 'permanent altering' of an animal seized as part of a cruelty case while the case is being prosecuted unless such actions are deemed necessary by a veterinarian to 'save the life of the animal.'
This language was added as a compromise by the Senate, to appease the American Kennel Club and the House, due to its similarity to current practice. This section is relatively redundant, as animals seized as part of cruelty cases are considered evidence (until determined otherwise by the court), and as with other types of criminal cases, evidence cannot be 'altered.' Under current law, animals are also considered the property of their owner (who is often the defendant). As such, in cases where the defendant does not forfeit their ownership, the State must receive authorization from the court to perform surgery or permanently alter the animals. Under current practice, the Prosecution must demonstrate to the court that such procedures are necessary, according to a licensed veterinarian.
However, the specific language could potentially tie the court's hands, depending on the circumstances. In the Wolfeboro case, a Great Dane was suffering from an inadequately treated eye condition, which, according to trial testimony, was not only likely causing pain, but rendered her blind. The court granted the State's motion for emergency eye surgery. In the Marlborough case, a partial amputation of a Labrador retriever's leg was performed, due to an inadequately treated wound, which was causing pain, limping, and self-mutilation. While the Prosecution could argue those surgeries were essential to cease unnecessary pain or suffering, it could also be argued under this bill that they were not 'necessary to save the animal's lives.' One could also argue that 'saving an animal's life' and ensuring 'quality of life' are similar enough in a veterinarian's or court's eyes, making the language a non-issue. However, the standpoint of Straight Twist is that the language was not worth the risk, regardless. Ultimately, however, the bill as a whole is strong in its protections for animals and taxpayers, despite this section and is exceedingly supportable.
6. Reasonable Protections For The Accused, As Well As Owners & Co-Owners Who Are Not The Defendant
The language of the bill clarifies that a person charged with animal cruelty may petition the court to have the animals examined by a licensed veterinarian of their choice (at their financial expense).
It also clarifies that a person who has proof of ownership or co-ownership of the animals, and who is not the defendant or a person of interest in the case, may petition the court for temporary custody throughout the trial. It also confirms that upon conviction of cruelty, the court shall restore full ownership rights, or grant sole ownership to co-owners, if such owners or co-owners were not the people convicted. The court shall only grant such temporary or permanent custody, or ownership, if it determines that it is in the best interest of the health, safety, and wellbeing of the animals.
These were compromises made by the Senate for the House Environment and Agriculture Committee, however, are references/clarifications of current court practices only and do not change current court procedure.
Click here for an in-depth look into the battle that led to the success of HB 459 (SB 77-FN), who supported and opposed the bill, and the actions of key legislators.