By: Amber Wetzel

Many states are currently revamping criminal statutes and procedures dealing with the abuse and neglect of animals.  Media attention given to cases involving animals has seen a recent increase as well, as a result of high profile cases like that of Michael Vick, and also television shows such as: Animal Hoarders, Animal Cops, and Pit Bulls and Parolees.   One particular issue that is being tackled by many state legislatures is the cost of care of an animal once it has been seized.  Laws governing how and when an owner is required to pay for the care of an animal that has been seized are generally called “Cost of Care” laws.  Well known animal organizations are taking up the fight for animal owner’s rights, at the cost of animal care funding.

When an animal is confiscated from an unfit environment, a humane society or local shelter normally takes in the animal and takes responsibility for getting the animal treated and cared for.  These facilities normally operate day to day on low budgets, and must often limit the resources spent on these animal victims.  States have created a variety of ways to deal with the offenders and the limited resources available to treat and care for the animal, but these mechanisms can often be complicated when the animal remains evidence of a crime or seized property of the accused.  For example, a person arrested for animal cruelty has the option to voluntarily surrender the animal, so that animal may be adopted out quickly.  However, the prosecutor may refuse to allow the animal to be adopted out, if the animal is vital evidence in a criminal case.  This example helps to demonstrate a common source of problems arising in all laws governing the ownership of animals: animals are legally considered property and have no rights, but animals are living creatures that will die without adequate care.

It is also common for animal safety laws to include restitution provisions.  Those provisions require the convicted to pay restitution to the agency holding the animal for standard boarding care costs, and may also be required to pay restitution for any medical or behavioral treatment that is required before the animal is fit to be placed in a new home.  Unfortunately for the agencies that assume the responsibility for neglected or abused animals, the former owners very rarely have the funds to pay, leaving the agencies to continuously take in animals without receiving compensation. The disparity between the amount of money agencies spend on seized animals and the amount of money received from the owners of those animals has got state legislatures searching for better, more upfront solutions to the problem.

Pennsylvania is one of the most recent states to pass a more controversial “cost of care” bill to try and alleviate the burden on humane societies and shelters.  Various cost of care laws exist in about two dozen states.  Typically, the law allows a court to order a defendant to pay the cost of the animal’s care while the case is being resolved; failure to pay the cost results in a forfeiture of the animal.  Colorado gives a defendant ten days after the animal is impounded to either request a hearing on the estimated cost of care, or simply pay the shelter’s estimated cost of the animal’s care for a minimum of thirty days. Otherwise, the animal is considered forfeited.  Pennsylvania’s law, which was passed in January 2013, caps the cost of care and boarding at $15/day, excluding any specific medical expenses, which must all be documented to be included in the court ordered payment.

What is most notable about the Pennsylvania law was the opposition against it.  Organizations that are supposed to be animal friendly, such as The American Kennel Club, the Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs and other agricultural organizations fought until the House voted to try and prevent the bill.  These groups argued the law violated the defendant’s due process.  The opposition to the bill claimed the law negated the “innocent until proven guilty” requirement by ordering a defendant to either pay the money or forfeit property that had been seized by the government.  Pennsylvania does not allow citizens to file claims of animal cruelty (a few states do).  Instead, Pennsylvania leaves the handling of animal cruelty cases entirely to the police and the prosecutors.  The cost of care bill also requires a court determination that there was sufficient basis for the seizure.

Animals are considered property for fourth amendment purposes, which means that before an animal (a piece of property) may be seized, the government must have probable cause for the seizure.  As with any other property, once it is established the property has been properly seized, it may be held until the case has been resolved.  Animals deserve special consideration because, unlike inanimate objects, animals require actual care such as space, food, and attention.  If for example, clothes are seized from a criminal defendant, the clothes can be put in a box in a police storage room.  The same cannot be said for animals.  If an owner is required by law to provide adequate care for animal, why should this change once the animal has been seized?  If the animal lived at the owner’s home, as opposed to a shelter for the duration of a trial, the owner would still be legally required to feed and accommodate the animal.  Even the strongest opponents to the new cost of care bill cannot deny the already existing laws that require owners to provide proper necessities to animals or risk forfeiture of the animal.  If an owner cannot financially support the animal for the duration of the case, would it not seem likely the owner was also not providing adequate care for the animal prior to the animal’s seizure?  It is a settled principle of law that owners must provide care; the location of an animal should not negate the owner’s responsibility, because after all, the owner may be found innocent of the charges.