Webinar presenters Michelle Welch and Richard Samuels answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Investigating and Prosecuting Animal Crimes in Small, Rural and Tribal Communities (part 2). Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: I have a guy trapping hogs allowing them to dehydrate and starve and the courts won’t let me do anything. They’re feral, they’re a nuisance. How did we get people to start understanding that this is just wrong?
Michelle Welch: So, Richard had the exact same question I have. What we would ask is where we’re in the country is it? Is she a lawyer? Has she looked at the law to see if they’re prohibited? Feral hogs might fall under a nuisance species. I think the first thing I would do is to look for wildlife resources law, or it might be classified under game. I would call your wildlife agency and see what they say about it. If they’re not listed as nuisance species, then she needs to look at her animal cruelty law to see if they fit under animal cruelty and what the definition of animal is under her cruelty code. I feel like it’s a very specific question and if she wants to reach out by e-mail, I can do some more with it with her. But I think you’ve got to really figure out what is the problem there. Why are they not wanting to enforce? The animal cruelty code should cover wildlife abuse.
Audience Question: This is what is needed in order to successfully prove exigent circumstances? And I know that’s a big question.
Michelle Welch: Well, it really does have to be an emergency, I have all the case law in the whole United States if anybody wants it because I’ve had to argue this a number of times. I’ll give you an example. We had a dogfighting case, where the farmer had a pig, and it was being attacked by two pit bulls. He trapped one. He shot the other and said that the pit bull was injured and wounded, and the officers went around looking for the pit bull. They knocked on doors. They didn’t enter any property that was locked. They were definitely searching for that injured pit bull. They got to a dog fighter’s house, and he’s now a convicted dogfighter. When they arrived on his porch, they were on his stoop they look over and they see about 20 pit bulls all chained in a line and so they’re looking for a pit bull. The other little nuance to this case was his front door was open. They didn’t enter his home. They backed out and they only went on his property to see if they could find an injured pit bull. Now as they did that because that is an exigency, it has to really be an emergency element. So, in that case, we prevailed on the motion to suppress. The Judge said it was an exigent circumstance, they had to find this injured pit bull because he could attack a human and so that gave them the exigency to be on that property. While they’re on that property, they saw what looked like a dogfighting operation and backed out. They searched for the injured pit bull, then backed out and got a search warrant for the dogfighting operation. Now, I will tell you there are cases, there’s one I think out of Chicago, where the officers went to the front of the house. They heard dogs screaming, yelping and they went ahead and busted down the door, and they found dogs that were in distress. And so, that was also considered exigent circumstances. There’s another case that talks about these people who saw these dogs, they thought they were dead. They entered the property to see if they were dead, they were just very malnourished and very thin and emaciated. The courts found that to be exigent. Now, what I would say about exigent circumstances is if it really isn’t an emergency, you should slow your roll and get a search warrant so that your prosecutor doesn’t have to actually argue the exigent circumstances. Animals in distress have been ruled uniformly across the United States in many jurisdictions, then that’s an exigent circumstance.
Audience Question: I think that’s going to be the phrase of the day is slow your roll and I will credit you know, of course. Thank you so much. You know, our editor, Chris McCale, reminded me that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has, she believes that they have some resources for working cases and also that they can often speak to wildlife and non-domesticated animals. So, in the situation where you have the hogs, ALDF might be a resource Medina that you can reach out to.
Michelle Welch: And their website is a wealth of information, if you don’t know what your laws are, they have a whole map. And you can look and see all of your animal cruelty, animal fighting, animal sexual abuse laws in your state.
Audience Question: Why are jaw traps legal? Given that they’re incredibly cruel, especially when some hunters don’t check them for days at a time.
Richard Samuels: Well, I’ll take a shot at it. In the State of Virginia, if you’re trapping animals, you first have to have a permit which is through game department or your wildlife dept, which monitors those permits. Second, the trap has to be checked every 24 hours to prevent an animal from suffering between the jaw traps. In my personal opinion. If they are not checking, then that could be an animal cruelty charge.
Michelle Welch: But I’ll piggyback on Richard to say that it might be an enforcement issue. If someone isn’t abiding by the wildlife law, then they need to be prosecuted for that. I can understand that the audience member doesn’t think they’re humane, but then the way to change that is through legislation. And laws are always changing. We have about 30 bills every year on our animal laws.
Audience Question: What happens when the offender doesn’t have the money for seizing the animals with a search warrant. How does the agency get paid?
Richard Samuels: Well, typically in our jurisdiction, they’ll do what they call a judgment which is a civil action. That’s a legal part of it. In our jurisdiction, our county attorney will file a judgment or lien on the property, and that’s how they eventually recover the money. But sometimes our jurisdiction doesn’t try to recover the money because we take the animals away from the abuser. The abuser could have no money, and we understand that going in, but we still have to do our jobs.
Michelle Welch: The other thing remedy is to ask for restitution in the seizure hearing or criminal animal cruelty case. Richard is really good at explaining the process to them, especially how much it’s going to cost. If they don’t relinquish the animals and the prosecutor has to argue a motion to dismiss in the criminal trial, alleging the officer did something wrong, then having the body cam of the officer explaining clearly what their options are: Surrender or court hearing is powerful. So, when you are asking for the surrender of the animals, the officer does not pressure the owner. He simply asks “Do you want to surrender it, if you don’t do, we will do this hearing, which is your probable cause hearing.” So, bottom line is, if they don’t have money, if they surrendered them immediately, then a lot of times the locality won’t even pursue recovering the costs of care.
Audience Question: Do you have recommendations on best practices for documenting the seizure of animals?
Richard Samuels: Typically, when it comes to seizing an animal, we have a veterinarian on the property if it’s a large number of animals and we rely on our veterinarians to document. We do what they call triage in the field. So, the veterinarian goes to each individual animal before they’re moved off of the property and she does a triage. Triage means if there’s an emergency, the animal is removed. If there’s any type of scarring on the animal, if it’s dehydrated, she does a preliminary exam in the field that assists with the seizure at that point. Then she moves on to do an exam of the rest of the animals. Once that report is done it’s presented to the prosecutor. Then they determine which animal they want to go forth with as far as charges.
Michelle Welch: And this goes back to what Richard does really well. He builds the team, and sometimes we’ll have more than one vet. Then, we’ll have one overseeing vet who takes the three different vet reports and makes them into one comprehensive report. To do this, she makes sure that she sees every animal on the property, and she can say what is going on with that animal.
Audience Question: When animal cruelty cases are in violation of a federal statute, are state prosecutors receiving the necessary level of support from agencies such as the DOJ and USDA?
Michelle Welch: We work very well with our federal partners. I am a Special Assistant US Attorney, and what we do is we make sure that we partner with our federal prosecutors to figure out what charges are federal, what charges are state charges. And often, we will slow down an investigation, so that DOJ or USDA has enough time to actually vet their strategy. So, we work very cooperatively with them. We have a great relationship with them. But a federal case takes a lot longer to build. When we did our Big Blue case, it took us five years before we were done with trial and sentencing/disposition. Richard was undercover for two years. So, the federal case took three years to bring to fruition. And, again, they often mean a lot more evidence or want more evidence than we need on the state side. That’s why it’s important to have those federal partners and work with them very cooperatively. We have a really good relationship with USDA OIG, which is USDA’s investigator unit. That’s basically the federal agency that investigates animal fighting.