Legislative Action Center

Case Study: How Arbitrary Cruelty Bills Could Enrich NGOs At the Cost of The Wrongly Accused
July 2, 2020 by AKC Government Relations

A 2019-2020 Tennessee bill provides an interesting study on how the continuing expansion of arbitrary animal cruelty legislation and penalties could enrich—with insufficient governmental oversight—any society “incorporated for the prevention of cruelty to animals” at a terrible cost to wrongly accused pet owners or owners who innocently entrusted the care of a pet to a negligent caregiver.

Tennessee House Bill 852 was filed in February 2019 during the first year of the two-year 2019-2020 legislative session. As originally filed, it was a brief, straightforward bill that sought to increase penalties for aggravated animal cruelty.

AKC Government Relations (AKC GR) did not oppose the bill as originally filed. However, it was noted that the bill was likely a “striker,” meaning it contained placeholder language and the intended content would be filed as an amendment at some later date. This proved to be true, and amendments were proposed in 2019 and 2020. 

In May of 2020, more than 15 months after the bill was originally filed, it was taken off notice in subcommittee, which means the sponsor withdrew the bill from consideration. Here is a recap of those 15 months and how the proposed amendments, if enacted, could have affected animal owners in the state. It is also a good example of why it’s so important to stay informed, get involved, and to understand how the legislative process works in real life.   

A 2019 Proposed Amendment to the Bill

As anticipated, the bill was a striker, and amendments were proposed to “make” the bill. An amendment proposed in 2019, among many other problematic provisions, sought to:

  • Require a court to impose vastly increased penalties for several offenses involving animals. These increased penalties did not adequately distinguish between a correctible issue such as a spilled water container that caused no harm to an animal versus intentional acts of torture. 
  • Expand the confiscation of animals in conjunction with an accusation to include seizures of equipment and property.
  • Authorize the confiscation of animals that were not the subject of a violation, or that were not owned by the accused person, based solely on a “belief” that an animal was at risk of becoming the subject of an offense.
  • Expand the current practice of awarding of seized property, fines, and fees to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and not-for-profit organizations.

AKC GR and animal owners throughout Tennessee contacted members of the subcommittee assigned to hear the bill to express concerns with the proposed amendment. The subcommittee heard testimony by supporters of the amendment and decided to send the bill to 2019 Summer Study. Because it was a 2-year legislative session, the bill remained active in 2020.  

The 2020 Proposed Amendment to the Bill

In 2020, another amendment was filed. In addition to problematic provisions already noted, the 2020 amendment sought to:

  • Authorize NGOs and not-for-profit “societies” to confiscate animals when a person is taken into custody on an accusation of certain offenses involving animals. This would have been extremely problematic because under current Tennessee law, the president of any society incorporated for the prevention of cruelty to animals may appoint himself/herself or any other person to make arrests for cruelty offenses involving non-livestock animals within that county. Thus, the proposed amendment would have expanded powers of appointees of these non-governmental “societies” so they could both make arrests and seize animals.
  • Require the seizure of animals when a person is taken into custody on an accusation of a violation of certain offenses involving animals. It additionally would have required that the arresting agent shall seize any other animal that is believed to be at risk of being the subject of an offense. When considered alongside the other proposed provisions, the seizure of animals could be based on the opinion of an appointee of a non-governmental “society” operating without oversight or substantive due process checks. Also, confiscation would have been mandated, regardless if other responsible parties, including co-owners, were available to provide care to the animals. 
  • Require that seized animals must be placed into the custody of a specified list of entities, including those same “societies.”
  • Require that any second conviction for simple animal cruelty would rise to a felony offense.  These are sometimes called “two spilled water containers = a felony” proposals. AKC supports full enforcement of reasonable animal cruelty laws, including felony charges as appropriate. However, the proposed amendment would have equated any second occurrence of negligence that did not cause harm to an animal with acts of torture and intentional abuse and made any second conviction for simple animal cruelty a felony. While this might be appropriate when an animal is intentionally or cruelly harmed, the proposed amendment would have removed the discretion of a court to consider the nature and severity of an offense and assign appropriate penalties.
  • Expand provisions regarding cost of care payments for impounded animals. Tennessee’s existing cost of care law is already overreaching, and the proposed amendment would have included “societies” among the recipients of these payments, creating conflicts of interest for animal protection societies. Societies with little or no governmental administrative oversight would then be empowered to make accusations of neglect or cruelty, make arrests, seize animals if the owner was taken into custody, and ask a court for unlimited boarding and care fees while the case made its way through the courts. An accused person—or the owner of an impounded animal—who was unable to pay these unlimited cost of care fees would risk losing the animal permanently.

Recognizing the dangers of the new amendment, AKC GR, animal owners, sportsmen’s groups, and agricultural organizations again contacted members of the subcommittee to express concerns. In a close vote, the subcommittee voted to not approve the proposed 2020 amendment. When the amendment failed, the bill was taken off notice. 

Potential Consequences of the 2020 Proposed Amendment

Consider some of the consequences if the bill had been amended and passed.  For example, if an employee of a dog boarding kennel was accused of an offense against an animal, all animals “in the control” of the accused person would be required to be confiscated. Their owners could be prevented from picking up their pets and taking them home. The accused boarding kennel employee could then be ordered to remit payment for costs of care for the impounded animals and to submit additional payments each month throughout the duration of the trial period. 

Under current law, if the person accused of the offense does not pay costs of care for impounded animals, then the animal owners can be required to pay those costs for as long as the animals are held.  That would mean if your dog was confiscated and held because of an accusation against another person, such as an accused boarding kennel employee, you would have to pay the costs of care even though you were not the one accused of a violation. If you were traveling and could not be contacted, or if you were financially unable to make the payment each month that your dog remained impounded, your dog would be forfeited to the impounding entity.

Under existing cost of care laws in Tennessee and in many other states, even if charges against the accused are dropped or the person is found not guilty, the impounding entity gets to keep all the cost of care payments that were remitted for the period that the animals remained impounded. Read more about problems with these laws. 

To sum it up, the proposed amendments combined with existing law would have authorized appointees of certain non-governmental “societies” to make accusations of neglect or cruelty, place persons under arrest, confiscate animals, and be awarded unlimited costs of care for the confiscated animals.  Further, the impounding agencies would potentially receive the resulting fines, fees, and cost of care payments—and will be awarded ownership of the seized animals if cost of care payments were not remitted by the deadline each month. 

This could serve to encourage “seize now, sort it out later” actions, and most particularly by the “societies” that are not subject to governmental administrative oversight. 

Why This Matters to Dog Owners

Overreaching laws that enable the confiscation and forfeiture of animals are especially problematic when coupled with the new category of no animal was harmed neglect and cruelty laws. 

For example, laws have been proposed and/or enacted in various jurisdictions that make it an offense to allow a healthy dog to be outside if the temperature falls below an arbitrary number, even if the dog is perfectly comfortable, safe, and has access to an appropriate dog house or shelter. 

Other legislation seeks to make it an offense to fail to bring an animal indoors if there is a weather advisory in the area, regardless if the animal has shelter, the weather event never occurs, or the animal is never harmed. Read more about “no animal was harmed” legislation.

Depending on where you live, the laws of your state, and the nature of the offense, an animal neglect or cruelty conviction could require forfeiture of all your animals. You could be sentenced to not reside with, work with, own, or control animals for years—or for your entire lifetime. You could be required to register as an animal abuser and be listed on a public animal abuser registry. 

These penalties can be appropriate and necessary for acts of cruel neglect and abuse that harm animals.  But what about that “two spilled water containers = a felony” proposal? And laws that make you a criminal because you allow your Alaskan Malamute to play in the snow? 

Get Involved BEFORE a Bill or Amendment is Filed

The best opportunity to head off problematic legislation is to take action before it is filed.  Get to know your lawmakers now and share your thoughts on overreaching animal legislation.  Provide lawmakers with information so they will recognize and reject “two spilled water containers = a felony” proposals, a “no animal was harmed” bill, and legislation that seeks to the expand powers of and enrich NGOs and “societies.”

Fortunately, most legislators are fair-minded and are not aligned with animal rights extremism. But they need to know their constituents oppose these bad laws.

Work in advance to educate your legislators so that laws to protect animals are based in sound science rather than on emotional appeals. If reasonable existing laws are not being enforced, ask for more resources to support the full enforcement of good laws instead of enacting bad laws. 

Bills and amendments to bills can move very quickly, at times with less than 24 hours’ notice.  Amendments can be attached to bills without prior public notice.  It is much more effective to take the lead on legislative issues rather than continuously trying to play catch-up. 

Too often, legislators only hear one side of animal issues.  Lobbying by animal rights corporations is often accompanied by images of sad-faced puppies and sorrowful music. Those are compelling images. If good animal owners don’t provide a fact-based counterpoint and a voice of reason, then the next, and the next, and the next rounds of overreaching animal bills are likely to be enacted.  Do your part and take action today. 

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