Three fairly recent incidents in Massachusetts, Oregon, and New Jersey reveal different approaches to the enforcement of these states’ animal cruelty statutes.

In April, 2014 the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in a case of first impression, held that “in appropriate circumstances, animals, like humans, should be afforded the protection of the emergency aid exception,” which normally requires police to obtain a search warrant before entering private property.  As reported by John R. Ellement in the Boston Globe, on April 11, 2013, the decision was applauded by the president of the Animal Control Officers of Massachusetts, who said “her members will no longer have to engage in the time-consuming effort to obtain a search warrant as an animal’s life hangs in the balance.”

So who decides when an animal’s life hangs in the balance?

That question remains unanswered, but the Court emphasized that “not every circumstance where animals appear to face threat will justify police bypassing legal protections against government intrusion onto private property guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions.”  The Court added that there may be limited remedies to those whose rights are trampled in the name of “animal protection.”

So who is going to police the police and animal control officers?  If New Jersey serves as an example, citizens in Massachusetts may have cause for alarm.

New Jersey resident and long-time animal lover, Theresa “Tee” Carlson [1], also a leader of the Hunterdon County SPCA, and Director of the County’s Animal Shelter was recently arrested, handcuffed, and patted down, over alleged charges of animal cruelty based on the NJSPCA’s determination that too many cats were housed in the County’s no-kill animal shelter.

Handcuffing and arresting Ms. Carlson was extreme, entirely unnecessary, and procedurally unsound.  In addition to caring for many homeless and abandoned animals, Ms. Carlson has notoriously stood up to the NJSPCA, prevailing over their attempts to take over the Hunterdon County chapter and all its assets.  Some suggest that controlling these assets was the main motivation behind Ms. Carlson’s arrest.  Now, at least for the moment, it seems that the NJSPCA has obtained that control.

The NJSPCA has been renowned for its abuse of its powers, as previously reported here.  Despite this, its law enforcement activities remain largely uncontrolled by any government entity.  Paul Mulshine, reporting on Ms. Carlson’s arrest in the Newark Star Ledger on April 19, 2014, presented the facts of the arrest and history of NJSPCA’s abuses to David Favre, Professor of animal law at Michigan State University.  Favre’s response included a suggestion to remove the NJSPCA’s law enforcement authority−“[s]ounds like it’s time to clean the slate and start over again.”  Interestingly, the State Commission of Investigation came to a similar conclusion in its 2000 Report, reporting on the abuses of the NJSPCA.

At the other end of the spectrum, an Oregon Court of Appeals reversed a conviction of animal cruelty based largely on evidence obtained from a veterinarian’s “search” of a dog without a search warrant.  The search involved a veterinary examination of the dog after it was seized by an animal cruelty investigator, but before a search warrant had been issued.  The Court, as reported in the Oregonian by Aimee Green, on April 16, 2014, found that the animal cruelty investigator probably had cause to seize the dog, but that a search warrant should have been obtained before the dog was examined by a veterinarian.  Concluding that the exam was a warrantless search, the Court excluded the medical records as evidence.  As a result, there was insufficient evidence to support the animal cruelty charges.

It was noted that “many judges would likely have issued a warrant under such circumstances.”  Based on the facts presented, providing the dog with some food and water while waiting for a search warrant would not have harmed the dog for that short period of time.  A subsequent veterinary examination would likely have revealed evidence that could have been used to support the cruelty charges.  (It is important to note that in some situations this delay would not have been possible.)

The constitutional rights of people charged with animal cruelty and the protection of animals suffering from those acts must be carefully balanced to ensure that evidence of mistreatment is properly obtained and perpetrators of animal cruelty are fairly and adequately punished, as prescribed by law.

[1] I have known Ms. Carlson for many years, having first met her when I provided veterinary care to a number of horses the Shelter was housing while the horses’ owners were investigated for allegedly neglecting to provide the horses with adequate care.