Discussion: The reality of how animal cruelty cases are handled within the U.S. court system

This is a discussion article on the reality of how animal cruelty cases are handled in the U.S. court system. It may surprise some readers on issues that range from the time it takes a case to get to court until it’s settled either by jail time or a small fine.

I’ve been writing on court cases for seven years now and it never ceases to amaze me how abusers are punished. Or should I say NOT punished? Part of the problem is the laws in most states aren’t firm enough to be considered punishment and even when a judge issues the maximum penalty allowed by law it’s often seen as a slap on the wrist.

There is some leeway in sentencing but only to the extent that the officiating judge can make charges consecutive rather than concurrent. That’s what we should push for. And no more plea bargaining and ban future pet ownership!

The cases of Barbara Hart (NC), Terry Ray Beasley along with his girlfriend Tamara Perez-Lazaro (NC), Kristen Lindsey (Texas) and Julianne Westberry (SC) have taught me that justice for the abused animals is a long time coming if it comes at all.

I’ll use Barbara Hart as an example since her case keeps being postponed. Cat advocates woke up to the news on May 11, 2017, that Hart not only had dead cats in her home, she had dogs outside without food or fresh water. Master Deputy Patrick Schmeltzer of the Rowan Sheriff’s Office noted he could smell feces, urine and dead animals coming from inside the home.

Hart was arrested at her home May 12 and charged with nine counts of animal cruelty. Her bond was set at $1,500. Hart made her first appearance in court in Salisbury (Rowan County) on June 12. As with most animal cruelty cases we see tried in North Carolina, the case was postponed until July 24 as detailed in this PoC update.

On July 24 the case was once again postponed until August 21.  On August 21 the case was rescheduled for September 18 at which time it was postponed for October 16, 2017. This seems to happen with the majority of cases of animal cruelty in NC.

Animal advocates who follow these cases ask WHY. There are many reasons a case is postponed. Everything from the defense asking for more time to prepare for trial to the arresting officer not being able to make it to court on the appointed day.

What infuriates me is people take days off of work to show up to support the animals involved to see they get some kind of justice. Some come from hundreds of miles away with the hope it will make an impact on the presiding judge, only to be told time and again to come back next month, then the next month, and on and on it goes.

Does anyone know NC law well enough to comment on whether a court case MUST by law be heard within a certain time frame or can only be rescheduled ‘x’ number of times? I’d love for someone to post a link to it if there is.

The only bright spot in this nightmare of court appearances is it often gives the time for the prosecution to gather more evidence against the abuser. Petitions, phone calls, and emails need to be sent to the county District Attorney where the cruelty took place.

In a lot of cases, I believe the person who filed the charges (if an individual) would have to show up at each court appearance. I’m not sure if that person were unavailable the case could be dropped. Another concern is when the abuser doesn’t immediately get out on bond he/she may go before the judge and be given a “time served” sentence. This is what happened in the Terry Ray Beasley case.

Please feel free to leave a comment on animal cruelty cases you’ve followed. Did the punishment fit the crime? How long did it take for the case to actually go to trial? I really like to know whether some states respect animals more than others.

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Discussion: The reality of how animal cruelty cases are handled within the U.S. court system — 9 Comments

  1. First is the plea bargain game. This is encouraged to settle many cases out of court. All kinds of crimes are mitigated to lower status to get the criminal to agree to some punishment without being a burden on the court system.
    Many Animal Control Wardens do not have legal powers to arrest and may even have to call local LE for assistance when needed.
    Many local ordinances for animal control are poorly written and next to impossible to enforce. Ours are so open ended you don’t really know when it’s a crime. Reports of animal abuse are often not followed up on or despite eyewitness testimony the owners give a story the AC officer buys.
    Realistically the US needs a standardized set of laws that cover crimes against animals but because of state rights it’s hard to get there.
    The Albuquerque Heart Ordinance is one of the best I’ve seen.
    Judges despite what some of them do are not generally able to make law from the bench. They may set precedent but it has a high chance of being overturned.
    We need well paid , well trained AC officers that are empowered with the full rights of law enforcement.
    We need laws that are spelled out with punishments and fines specified not left up to judicial discretion.
    Most likely we need actual animal courts where the judges sitting are voted in and well versed in animal law.
    A nationwide register of anyone convicted of ANY animal abuse or neglect domestic ( dog , cat ) or livestock.


  2. State anti-cruelty laws are actually pretty uniform across the US — relics of 19th century statutes derived from UK Victorian measures. It’s how they’re applied that varies widely, & there are some amazing developments. Just posted article from JD Journal about lawyer who was disbarred & got 2-year prison term for felony cruelty (beating girlfriend’s dog to death) in NY.

    • In almost all states animals are considered personal property. This doesn’t leave lawyers trying to get justice or judges trying to dispense justice a lot of wiggle room in most cases. Most of the cases where the judgments have stood have been based on punitive damages and cost those trying to get justice much more than they’ll ever receive. You get no help in a civil judgment collecting although you can in some
      cases have LE help if you fill out the correct motions.
      Having been though the nightmare to getting some justice for our cat murdered by a veterinarian they system is built to protect the abuser and burden those with a case.

  3. I wish someone who start a blog on this — I can see many benefits. All the above questions are valid & worthwhile. Specific rules about trials (stated & implicit) vary from state to state & even among judicial districts within a state. So do the ways they are implemented — that’s why people “judge shop” — shop around for a favorable judge.
    But we make a mistake if we think this only applies to animal cases — some attorneys make a very good living from stretching out & otherwise maneuvering DWI cases, for example. One other thing: hate to discourage people who show up to support the prosecution at animal cruelty trials, but it’s not supposed to (& shouldn’t) affect the judge or jury. Verdicts aren’t supposed to be determined by popular support. I hate to say it, but I fear the presence of a large group of such supporters could lead to (or give a reason or excuse for) a case being continued. This comment isn’t meant to minimize or invalidate the importance of educating the public (& judges) about animal cruelty, but the presence of supporters shouldn’t affect what happens in the courtroom unless these people are witnesses.

    • There’s a fine line in being an animal advocate and being a nag when it comes to contacting the DA’s office. I’ve never been to a protest but I’ve covered many, especially for dogs shot by police.

  4. I’m still trying to understand how a shelter can spay a 2-month-old kitten and take it to a busy area the following day and release it and call it effective TNR. Yet if an individual did the same they’d be charged with animal abandonment.

  5. I believe your mental disconnect comes from the fact that humans kill animals to survive. They are, by nature, designed to kill animals. Just like any other carnivore or omnivore. And even herbivores occasionally kill and eat other animals for the nutrients required to survive. (Even deer, a by-nature herbivore, will and do kill and eat other small animals and birds for required nutrients.)

    Unless humans somehow magically evolved to be became totally unnatural vegans (as no animal on earth doesn’t kill and eat other animals, and even vegans destroy billions of animals every year for their vegan dinner-plates, yet somehow conveniently ignore this fact), then humans will always be killing other animals. It’s just a matter of degree in how those animals are killed.

    Would you arrest and convict a killer-whale for tossing a seal into the air and playing with it until it dies? Would you arrest and convict a cat that tortures an animal to death for hours and then leaves it to screech to death with its skin ripped off of its body until all the “fun” has drained out of a cat’s tormented play-toy? How about the owner of that cat that allows and encourages their cat to torture to death other animals? Shouldn’t they be rotting in prisons too?

    Dog owners that allow and encourage their dogs to attack and kill other animals (if not a licensed hunting-dog during hunting season) end-up having their dogs destroyed, all their vehicles and hunting-gear confiscated, and then they are thrown in prison. Why not a cat-owner who does the same by using their cat to torture and kill other animals? Of course they should, but in your ignorant and biased blindness you won’t see it that way.

    This is why animal “abuse” cases take so long. It is a gray area of the law where only mewling pavement-brained simpletons’ opinions drive the convictions beyond the bounds of what is and is not natural for omnivore humans to do. You’d be convicting millions of people of animal abuse every day if you weren’t more concerned about the price of that bucket of chicken or fast-food burger you enjoy every day. But because it is a cat, all of a sudden how an animal suffers or dies now somehow matters to you.

  6. I would like to see some attorney’s weigh in on this. Even getting them to the point of prosecution does not happen. When there is solid evidence and the law enforcement chooses not to take the case to court, why? Cruelty is laid out in the books concerning animal law and yet it seems the perp gets a lesser charge and why? I have far more questions than answers.

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