NH Animal Cruelty Prevention: Part I, SB 77-FN
Updated: Dec 15, 2019
Following last years death of comprehensive animal cruelty prevention bill, SB 569-FN, Senator Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) vowed to come back and stand up for animals once again in 2019. Not long after, he held true to those words and began working tirelessly on the well-considered, negotiated, and bi-partisan supported language of two new bills to protect New Hampshire's animals and residents; SB 77-FN and SB 161. Those bills have been introduced into the NH state Legislature, and now its time for residents to help get them past the finish line.
Acknowledging The Problems
Law enforcement may currently seize animals suffering from cruelty based on probable cause, or when animals are in imminent danger [644:8 IV-a(a)]. Sometimes those animals must be held as evidence for a certain period, depending on the cruelty case. That timeframe is prolonged if the individual charged with cruelty is also the owner of the animals and declines to forfeit ownership. Additionally, sentencing often does not include an appropriate prohibition of future animal ownership following a conviction. Out of those situations arises many problems, for which SB 77 proposes practical resolutions.
Adverse Impacts of Long-Term Sheltering on Animals & Humans
Although humane societies and shelters do all they can to address the specific needs of each animal in their care, it is not the same as a forever home. In addition to being domestic, sentient beings who deserve loving families, animals can suffer from long-term sheltering, due to the sheer nature of a shelter environment.
According to Dr. Michelle Posage, a Northern New England veterinarian and behaviorist of over 15 years, "Research shows that dogs experience comparatively higher than normal levels of stress while living in shelters. Stress can be caused by prolonged exposure to noises of other dogs, insufficient social interactions, lack of mental health and a variety of behavioral problems including generalized anxiety, withdrawal, excessive vocalization, compulsive behavior, self-injury, and aggression."
Shelters can manage these issues with specialized techniques and with the guidance of veterinary professionals, but their time and resources are limited. Behavioral problems such as those due to anxiety or stress are considerably challenging, particularly if there is aggressive behavior, which also puts the caregiver's safety at risk.
Local humane societies also survive on donations while providing services such as pet food pantries, low-cost rabies vaccines, spay/neuter programs, public outreach and education, cruelty investigations and field work, emergency shelter for pets of owners in need, and the general housing of homeless animals in addition to those seized by law enforcement. Current ineffective and inefficient laws regarding the care of animals seized as part of cruelty cases have contributed to prolonged sheltering and depletable expenses, making the work of a shelter an uphill and sometimes impossible battle. Shelters have been forced to discontinue valuable public services due to long-term costs and maxed-out capacities throughout lengthy cruelty trials and appeals.
Problem 1: Disorganization, delays, and confusion within the current court system regarding long-term care for animals lawfully seized as part of cruelty cases
Current law [644:8 IV(a)] requires that cruelty cases involving the seizure of animals take priority on the court calendar. Despite that, it takes an average of 7-9 months for a cruelty case to be heard and an additional 6-12 months for an appeal process. There is also a detrimental degree of disorganization within the court system surrounding the long-term care of seized animals while cases are prosecuted. There is no dedicated process in place to address this matter, often leaving an appropriate discussion off the table, or causing the need for multiple motions to be filed with the court, contributing to confusion and delays. All the while, those animal victims are often living in shelter environments, straining valued resources of humane societies, and risking the health and safety of the animals and those who care for them.
Solution 1: SB 77 would require a preliminary hearing* for cruelty cases within 14 days of the lawful seizure of animals [SB 77, 644:8, IV(a)].
This will help ensure a more accelerated and organized process, allowing for a discussion in front of a judge about the long-term humane care, behavioral and safety concerns, as well as necessary veterinary services for animals held as evidence while the trial is prosecuted. It is noteworthy that the hearing is to discuss the care of the animals during the trial only, and will not involve the defendant's plea of guilt or innocence, and would not hinder an accused rights to a jury trial. This section also does not change the current laws regarding cost of care, and that the cost of care is ultimately determined by the court and must paid for by the defendant upon conviction, unless appealed [644:8 IV(a)].
*As a compromise for the House, the term 'preliminary hearing' was changed to 'status hearing' [HB 459, 2614-CofC, 6/19/19]
Problem 2: Long-Term sheltering and unpaid cost of care due to appeals, and ineffective and misinterpreted laws
Following the conviction of cruelty in a lower court (e.i., District, Superior), the defendant can file an appeal. Current law grants the court authority to require that the defendant post a bond for up to $2,000 per animal for the cost of their care to maintain ownership during the appeal [644:8 IV (b)]. However, current law does not specify a timeframe in which that bond must be posted, and the lower courts have also misinterpreted it.
Over 30 German Shepherds were lawfully seized more than a year ago from an unlicensed NH breeder. In July 2018, the Defendant was convicted of animal cruelty by the District Court, which she appealed to the Superior Court. The court misinterpreted current law as to only granting authority to require a bond for appeals to the Supreme Court. The Defendant has not posted what should've been a required, approximate $70K bond. Yet, she has maintained ownership of those animals, while they continue to live in a shelter during the appeal. The NH SPCA (Stratham) has now provided 430 days of care, which according to the shelter's executive director, Lisa Dennison, has exceeded $400K.
Solution 2: SB 77 clarifies existing law granting the court authority to order a convicted defendant pay a bond of up to $2,000 per animal in order to retain ownership throughout an appeal, regardless of the level of court, and also requires that the bond is posted within 14 days [SB 77, 644:8, IV(c)].
If the bond is not posted within 14 days,* the defendant's ownership of those animals is forfeited, as intended by current law [644:8 IV (b)], allowing the placement of the animals into appropriate, forever homes. SB 77 also clarifies that if the bond is posted within the 14 days, the designated caregiver may immediately begin to draw from those funds to mitigate the cost of care [SB 77, 644:8, IV(c)].
*As a compromise for the House, the deadline for the bond was changed to within 30 days, with a potential extension of an additional 15 days, if granted by the court, for good cause [HB 459,1976s, 2258s, 5/23/19].
Problem 3: Repeated cruelties and increased risk of domestic violence due to continued animal ownership following conviction
Current law grants the court authority to prohibit any person convicted of animal cruelty from future ownership or custody of animals for any period of time the court deems reasonable [644:8 IV(a)]. There is no minimum mandatory prohibition for felony cruelties (e.g., torture, mutilation), nor is there a penalty for a violation of a court-ordered ban. Under this law, those convicted of cruelty may reside with animals that they don't technically own or have legal custody of (e.g., a pet of a roommate, family member or spouse). This loophole is particularly dangerous for animals and humans due to ties to domestic violence, and high recidivism rates, which are nearly 100% for certain types of animal cruelties.
In April 2017, two unlicensed breeders were arrested for animal cruelty in Berlin, NH. Although husband and wife, their cases made their way through the court system separately. The husband was convicted of animal cruelty in 2018, before his wife's case was heard. Because the loophole in current law, his wife had already begun to bring new animals into their home before her conviction, despite the two-year ban on animal ownership that was included in his sentence.
Studies show that 71-88% of women seeking shelter from domestic violence report that their partners had injured or killed a family pet, or threatened to do so. Victims who flee are often unable to take their animals with them due to a shortage of pet accommodating landlords and shelters. Abusers often continue to threaten and harm their pets as retaliation or to force the victims to return.
Solution 3: SB 77 rectifies loopholes and strengthens existing laws that prevent convicted abusers from owning or regularly interacting with animals.
SB 77 accomplishes this by requiring that the court prohibits any person convicted of a felony offense of animal cruelty [under 644:8], or any level offense of bestiality [under 644:8-g] from having future ownership, custody, or residing with animals for a minimum of 5 years. It also clarifies that if the court imposes such a ban for any other misdemeanor animal cruelty offense, such prohibition will include residing with animals. SB 77 additionally requires that any violation of a court-ordered ban on animal ownership will be fined $1,000 per animal and that those animals will be subject to immediate forfeiture; allowing the animals the chance for immediate placement into appropriate homes. Lastly, it clarifies that reasonable restrictions on future access to animals may include limitations on a person's employment in the care of animals [SB 77, 688: IV(b)].
SB 77-FN and SB 161 have been years in the making, and a true result of research and compromise, as well as the exhaustive efforts and insight from those on the front lines battling cruelty and caring for animal victims every day. And most importantly, it is in honor of the animals themselves who have endured cruelty, paving the way towards brighter days for other animals in the future. It's time to contact our legislators and urge their support to ensure those animals did not suffer in vain.
February 21, 2019: SB 77-FN as Introduced was Amended [AM 2019-0660s] by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with a unanimous vote. The amendment clarifies that any 'unused bond' shall be returned to the person who posted it if there is a court approved agreement of the parties (meaning, the court, prosecution and defense), a finding of not guilty, or the reversal of a conviction (unless it is a reversal with a remand for further proceeding; meaning if the trail is referred back to the lower court from a higher court). It also defines 'unused' as the excess portion of a bond that was not consumed in the actual costs of animal care.
March 7, 2019: Amendment 0660s was adopted by the Senate via unanimous voice-vote (24-0), and the bill as Amended by the Senate was passed by the Senate via unanimous voice-vote (24-0).
April 30, 2019: Following a public hearing for the bill as amended by the Senate on 4/17/19, and an additional public hearing regarding the House Environment and Agriculture Committee's non-german amendment [2019-1530h], the Committee voted to adopt their revised amendment [2019-1723h], and to pass SB 77-FN as amended, both times by a vote of 18-1. While the amendment included some acceptable compromises, agreed to by the bill's primary sponsor (Sen. Jeb Bradley), as well as a re-implementation of a previous NH law requiring health certificates for dogs, cats, and ferrets before being transfer/sold by pet vendors, it also included unfavorable language; including, but not limited to, a commercial breeder definition that maintained our current detrimental breeder licensing threshold of 50 puppies/10 liters transfer/sold per year, and a controversial 'cost of care fund.' Click here for more information.
5/08/2019: Bill co-sponsors, Rep. Katherine Rogers and Rep. William Marsh, drafted a floor amendment to be introduced on the House floor, which removed some of the unfavorable language of the House's amendment [1723h], but kept the intent of the bill intact. Before the floor amendment was introduced, Rep. Peter Bixby, vice-chair of the House Environment and Agriculture Committee, motioned to table SB 77-FN on the House floor; citing that the bill included 'due process problems' and that the cost of care fund was flawed. The House voted to table SB 77-FN by a division vote of 202-147. Click here for more information.
05/23/2019: Following the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee's unanimous vote to amend HB 459 (a hemp study bill), by adding the language of SB 77-FN to it [2019-1976s], the full Senate voted 18-0 to adopt the amendment [1976s] as well as amendment [2258s] and pass HB 459 with that language included [HB 459, 1976s, 2258s]
06/10/2019: The House Environment and Agriculture Committee voted not to concur with the Senate on HB 459 (SB 77-FN). Committee of conference scheduled for June 19th at 10am, LOB room 303
06/19/2019 - 06/20/19: Following the committee of conference (details here), the committee signed-off on the conference report with a recommendation to the House to pass HB 459, including the language of SB 77-FN, as amended by the Senate [1976s, 2258s], with minor compromises for the House [2614-CofC]. House vote scheduled for June 27th.
06/27/2019: HB 459 was passed by the House via voice vote, and officially adopted by both the Senate and the House, including the language of SB 77-FN [2614-CofC, as adopted] and will soon head to Gov. Sununu's desk for signature. Click here for more information.