In New Jersey, Senate Bill 2454 would “[p]rovide for confiscation and forfeiture of animals involved in animal cruelty violations, and for [the] cost of their care while being held,” all without a Court review of any evidence that would demonstrate such action was warranted. While we have previously discussed that laws should provide for swift confiscation in situations where the animals are in imminent danger and/or require medical care that has been withheld, such measures can be accomplished pursuant to existing law that permits
“[a]n officer or agent of the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or a certified animal control officer, may petition a court of competent jurisdiction to have any animal confiscated and forfeited that is owned or possession by a person at the time the person is found to be guilty of violating . . . [animal cruelty laws].”
However, S2454 puts the proverbial cart before the horse by permitting law enforcement officers, the New Jersey State and local SPCA agents, or animal control officers to “immediately take physical custody of any animal injured or at risk of imminent harm due to the [alleged] violation and any other animals that the officer or agent believes are in danger of imminent harm” without court oversight and approval. The proposed bill requires review by a court after confiscation has already occurred.
In fact, the law prohibits a court review “no sooner than 10 days” for no discernible reason. The court is limited to a review of the enforcing agency’s assessment of existing and projected costs for the care of the animals confiscated and must assess the alleged violator those costs plus a security deposit. The accused must request a separate hearing to prove that it is unable to pay those costs.
Essentially, the concept of innocent until proven guilty would be entirely irrelevant if this bill passes.
But that is not all.
The burden of establishing probable cause of an animal cruelty violation by a petitioning enforcement agency is eliminated if the accused previously had a prior finding of probable cause of an animal cruelty offense, even if those charges were unfounded.
Even worse, if the accused is acquitted of all charges, “the court may return the animal to the owner . . . upon a determination that the owner . . . is able to adequately care for the animal.” So even if not guilty, the owner will have to undergo some kind of assessment that they are able to care for their animal.
Sounds like double jeopardy (or worse) to me.
And the enforcement agencies are protected against inquiries about the motivation for their actions and cannot be held liable for their conduct, even if based on invidious animus.
Other states have adopted some provisions that permit confiscation of animals before conviction, similar to New Jersey’s existing laws, but none appear as draconian as in S2454.