NH Cost of Care Law - Protecting Taxpayers and Animals
Updated: May 29, 2018
Animal welfare bill SB 569-FN passed the NH Senate and will soon be voted on by the House. In addition to preventing animal cruelty, by improving the efficiency of regulations on breeders, shelters and pet stores, the bill would also relieve law-abiding taxpayers the current burden of paying hundreds of thousands in expenses to care for animals seized as part of cruelty cases. Unfortunately, there have been misconceptions surrounding SB 569-FN's cost of care provisions. Below is information about the cost of care, answers to general questions, and a closer look at the facts addressing those misconceptions.
What is a Cost of Care Law?
When an individual is charged with animal cruelty, the animal victims are seized and lawfully considered evidence as part of that cruelty case. Because animals are sentient beings, they cannot simply be placed in an evidence locker; they must be cared for while the case makes its way through the court system.
Law enforcement does not have proper housing for animals, so it is local humane societies that often provide shelter. The expenses to care for those animals, such as that safe and sanitary shelter, food, water, environmental enrichment, and medical expenses, are commonly referred to as the cost of care.
When animal shelters are unable to afford those costs, coverage comes from the general funds of the town where the cruelty case took place; thus the taxpayers. Adequate cost of care laws relieves animal shelters and law-abiding taxpayers of that financial burden, by ensuring that the individual charged with the cruelty of those animals covers those expenses.
It comes to down to the fact that when animals are seized as part of cruelty cases; someone must pay for the cost to care for those animals while that case is being prosecuted.
We have to ask ourselves, who should it be?
Should it be NH's law-abiding taxpayers? Should it be local animal shelters that are already providing major services at no cost to residents? Or should it be the individual that has been charged with the cruelty of those animals; the same individual who was likely responsible for the care of those animals in the first place?
What is NH's Current Cost of Care Law?
Current NH law [RSA 644:8 IV(a)]requires that an individual pay cost of care upon conviction of animal cruelty as restitution. However, reported percentages of restitution received are as low as 1-3%, which leaves those who covered those expenses, who are non-profit organizations and taxpayers, left to suffer that financial loss.
What is SB 569-FN's Proposed Cost of Care Law?
Following the seizure of animals as part of a cruelty case, the cost of care law within SB 569-FN [SB 569-FN, RSA 644:8 IV, & RSA 644:8 IV-b] allows those caring for the animal victims (such as animal shelters) to file a cost of care petition with the court.
Upon receipt of that petition (within 21 days), there will be a civil hearing in which the court will hear from the individual charged with cruelty, and those caring for the animals, as well as review the legality of the seizure.
If the judge confirms the seizure was lawful based on a preponderance of the evidence, the judge will then determine a reasonable cost of care amount, which the individual who has been lawfully arrested and charged with animal cruelty will be responsible for paying, as opposed to animal shelters and law-abiding taxpayers.
What Is A Preponderance Of The Evidence?
A preponderance of the evidence is an evidentiary standard that requires not the mere abundance of evidence, but the court's determination that the evidence provided was more convincing based on its probable truth or accuracy.
Update - Reimbursed Cost of Care For Those Found Not Guilty
Those who own animals are responsible for paying for the cost of their care, regardless of being charged with cruelty. However, an individual found not guilty of such charges, could rightfully claim that caused them unnecessary hardship. In recognition of that and as a compromise, Senator Bradley (bill sponsor) proposed an amendment to SB 569-FN, which would allow for reimbursement of the cost of care paid by a person found not guilty for the cruelty charges associated with the lawful seizure of those animals. Sen. Bradley represented that amendment to the House Environment and Agriculture Committee during the public hearing on April 11th.
How Does SB 569-FN's Cost of Care Help Animals?
There is a point reached in many cruelty cases in which an animal is no longer considered evidence. However, it can still take several months, up to years for an animal cruelty case to work its way through the court system. All the while, animal victims that have survived neglect, abuse, severe injuries, diseases, and other ailments, are kept in shelters until the case comes to a close.
Although shelters do their best to provide enriched, warmhearted, and adequate care under the guidance of veterinarians, it still doesn't compare to life in forever homes with families. SB 569-FN [SB 569-FN, RSA 644:8 IV(a)] requires that if the individual lawfully charged with cruelty does not pay a reasonable cost to care for the animals, their ownership will be forfeited, allowing their adoption into appropriate and loving homes, as opposed to several months of life in a shelter. The bill's cost of care law also helps prevent cruelty, as discussed below.
How Does SB 569-FN's Cost of Care Help Shelters, Citizens, and Animals?
Local humane societies and welfare organizations are not federally funded and rely on donations to survive. Despite that, they provide several beneficial programs (animal shelter, spay/neuter, pet food pantry, etc.) at no cost to the public. When hit with thousands upon thousands in expenses to care for animals seized as part of cruelty cases, that financial burden unjustifiably drains their resources, which hinders their ability to continue providing low-cost/free services to low-income pet owners, as well as their capability of sheltering homeless animals. Additionally, the prevention of those services increases the potential of animal cruelty. SB 569-FN solves the root of that problem by taking that financial burden off the shoulders of shelters and placing it where it belongs.
SB 569-FN allows shelters to focus funds on helping low-income pet owners and homeless animals, which also prevents animal cruelty.
Misconception: SB 569-FN's Cost of Care Law Increases Risk of Animals Being Seized From Owners
Current law [RSA 644:8 IV-a(a)], already grants law enforcement officials and those duly licensed the rights to seize animals based on probable cause or when there is a clear and imminent danger to the animal's health or life. SB 569-FN doesn't change that fact.
Misconception: SB 569-FN's Cost of Care Law is Unconstitutional
As stated above, for a seizure to be considered lawful, it requires probable cause or the clear and imminent danger to the animals [RSA 644:8 IV-a (a)]. This means that regarding cruelty to animals, law enforcement officers and officials can't simply go inside a person's home and take their animals away from them without reason under the law.
As also stated above, before the court even determines the cost of care, the judge must first confirm that the seizure was lawful based on a preponderance of the evidence.
The American Civil Liberties Union of NH (ACLU), an organization "dedicated to preserving the individual rights and liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution," has expressed in writing that they are not opposed to SB 569-FN. They additionally wrote about their support of the amendment to the bill, which changed the evidentiary requirements to a preponderance of the evidence.
Additionally, SB 569-FN grants the accused rights to dispute the cost of care that is determined by the court and allows for adjustments [SB 569-FN, RSA 644:8, IV-b(a) (e)(1),(e)(2)].
SB 569-FN also ensures that neither the result of a cost of care hearing nor any statements made by the defendant at any such proceeding shall be admissible in any criminal prosecution related to the seizure of the animal(s), as well as limitations for discovery, requiring only that which is necessary for determining the cost of care [SB 569-FN, RSA 644:8 IV-b (f)].
Misconception: The Cost of Care Is Inflated and Unfair
Those opposed to SB 569-FN are considering current animal cruelty cases, such as the Wolfeboro Great Dane case, and are concerned that the cost to care for animals determined by the court is inflated and unreasonable. However, it is important to remember that animals that have been seized as part of cruelty cases often have suffered from neglect or abuse, and often have injuries, infections, diseases or other ailments as a result of that cruelty. So when we talk about what is considered 'reasonable' we have to take into account necessary medical treatment in addition to regular everyday care.
It is also important to note that while the person, shelter or organization providing care for the animals may file the petition with the court to request the cost of care, it is the court and only the court that will set the cost of care amount [SB 569-FN, 644:8 IV-b (d)].
Misconception: SB 569's Cost of Care Law is Unfair to Low-Income Pet Owners
The opposition of SB 569-FN has expressed concerns that low-income pet owners will be at a higher risk of losing their animals that are sized as part of cruelty cases if they cannot afford the cost of care that is set by the court.
First, SB 569-FN requires that the court consider an individuals income when determining a reasonable cost of care [SB 569-FN, 644:8 IV-b(d)]. Additionally, local humane societies and animal welfare organizations have a number of public outreach programs that provide low-income pet owners with free or low-cost spay/neuter services, vaccines, medical funds, and pet food pantries, which help owners who are in need of temporary assistance caring for and feeding their pets.
Those are programs that low-income pet owners can utilize for help before such issues rise to the level of cruelty.
However, current law [RSA 644:8] and regulations [Agr 1700] require basic animal care standards. If low-income situations lead to a violation of those laws, especially those resulting in the death or severe bodily injury of an animal, the state has the legal obligation to protect those animals.
If an individual cannot afford the reasonable cost to cover fundamental standards of care, then the animals deserve to go to a home that can. The underlying cause of animal cruelty, such as low-income, is a matter of the court to consider during the criminal trial when determining conviction. However, the responsibility an owner has to provide basic care for their animals should not be contingent upon that conviction, as they would have that financial responsibility regardless of cruelty charges.
SB 569-FN is not a matter of low income; it's a matter of placing the responsibility where it belongs.
Pet owners have the responsibility to pay for the cost to care for their animals - The fact that they have been charged with animal cruelty shouldn't relieve them of that.
Misconception: Dog License Fees Can Cover Cost of Care
Dog License Fees is Not the Answer for Cost of Care.
Increasing dog license fees would be an inefficient approach to this issue. With most towns having low funds, portions of dog license fees that towns receive are being kept for their general funds. There is no guarantee that upon increasing the fees that the funds would be properly allocated to cover cost of care, and with cost of care also being thousands, sometimes millions per cruelty case, those funds would not provide sufficient coverage. That proposal also does not solve the root of the problem, as it would continue to tax responsible residents for the care of animals owned by those charged with cruelty.
The Bottom Line
Pet owners have the responsibility to pay for the cost to care for their animals and the fact that they have been charged with animal cruelty shouldn't relieve them of that. And those animal cruelty charges certainly shouldn't cause that financial burden to be placed upon the shoulders of shelters, law-abiding taxpayers, or those who donate to animal welfare organizations; the very individuals who believe in the importance of and contribute to animal welfare and cruelty prevention. SB 569-FN provides appropriate protections for the accused, animal victims, shelters, and taxpayers, while also providing a solution to this financial problem by demanding that animal owners take accountability and responsibility for the fundamental care of their animals; something they’re already lawfully required to do regardless of being charged with animal cruelty.