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Witness for the defenseless

Attorney advises prosecutors, educates shelters on animal cruelty cases

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2014

As part of her work helping prosecuting attorneys navigate animal cruelty laws, Sherry Ramsey has created an online network for preosecutors nationwide to share lessons learned. Advocates should work for a good bonding and forfeiture law, which helps agencies seizing large groups of animals by covering the cost of their care or encouraging the perpetrator to surrender them so that they can be placed for adoption.

As part of her work helping prosecuting attorneys navigate animal cruelty laws, Sherry Ramsey has created an online network for prosecutors nationwide to share lessons learned.

In her early years at The HSUS, Sherry Ramsey, now director of animal cruelty prosecution and state affairs, spent a lot of time reaching out to prosecutors, inquiring how their animal cruelty cases were going and offering assistance. Eight years later, the tables have turned, and the busy attorney has a full docket keeping up with calls from lawyers, law enforcement officers, shelters, and just about any other type of organization concerned with animal welfare. “I think it shows that now the word’s out that we’re a good resource,” says Ramsey.

Prior to coming to The HSUS, Ramsey worked as a prosecutor for Monmouth County, N.J., handling animal cruelty cases and serving as a liaison to local police, humane officers, and shelters. In an effort to share knowledge and best practices, she created a Google group for prosecutors that has grown from just a handful of professionals to somewhere in the neighborhood of 100, including some of the largest prosecutors’ offices in the country. Ramsey says one good thing about it is that prosecutors in small jurisdictions who don’t have a lot of experience with animal cruelty cases can join the group and have access to prosecutors and attorneys general from all over the country who do.

Ramsey also serves as a source of information and support for shelter and rescue workers who sometimes “just need to get somebody on the phone that knows what’s going on to look at the laws and say, ‘This is probably how this is going to play out.' ... Sometimes just being there to offer the support and encouragement is enough.”

In this edited interview with Animal Sheltering staff writer Kelly Huegel, Ramsey discusses some of the challenges of prosecuting cruelty cases, along with common questions she receives.

Animal Sheltering: What are some of the issues shelters and ACOs often need help on?

Sherry Ramsey: Certain SPCAs or shelters around the country will have humane officers that do their investigations for them, so very often they will call me and ask specific questions. Maybe they’re trying to figure out if they can seize an animal. They might be worried about what’s going to happen in a disposition of an animal after a case. Do they have a right to [financial] restitution? They may not be able to get responses from the prosecutor’s office. Although I can’t give them specific legal advice, I can give them general information and direction.

One issue that comes up quite a bit is that animals are languishing in shelters waiting for a trial, and some prosecutors don’t understand what a big problem this is. Shelters need to let the prosecutor know that this is not only bad for the animal, but that it’s costing everyone money and they need to expedite the case if possible. It’s an issue that I think we sometimes need to do better on educating law enforcement and judges.

I work with a lot of our state directors on trying to get bonding and forfeiture laws passed in states where they don’t have them. You have to make sure that the laws are written in ways that are constitutional and provide due process, but if they’re set up appropriately, they require the defendant to put up bond money to pay for the animal, so that the money’s not being taken from the shelter resources or from the municipality in some cases if they’re paying for the animal’s care. But the other part that I think is even more important in some ways is that it expedites the proceeding because the defense is paying for this, so they’re less likely to string it out. Or in other situations where perhaps they don’t care enough to pay for the animal, they’ll just go ahead and surrender them.

If people have questions about getting these types of laws passed, our state directors are a good place for them to start.

What are some common questions you get from shelters regarding cruelty cases?

One of the common ones I get is that they’re very concerned about the animal being returned to an abuser. These groups may have watched these animals go from near death to thriving and loving little creatures, and then suddenly they get an order that they’re to be returned to the abuser, and they’re left to figure out what they can do.I always try to stress to people who are handling these cases, you need to fight these types of requests during the case because you’re basically giving the evidence back to the defendant. We wouldn’t return the evidence of any other crime back to a defendant, so why would we consider it? Because animals are considered property in every state, there is a perception sometimes that the defendant is allowed to get them back. But that of course is an absurd idea, because we never would return illegal weapons or any number of other types of property that are evidence of a crime. It’s even more important because these are sentient living creatures who are going to be subjected to suffering if they’re mistreated.

Sometimes there’s no choice. If the prosecutor tried, but he just lost the case, there’s only so much you can do to keep the animal from being returned, though sometimes you can convince a judge who may just be uneducated. In one case I was able to advise a prosecutor how to appeal a ruling like that, and the order was rescinded—the animals didn’t have to be returned.

Are there general rules about when an animal can be held as evidence?

The evidence thing is a big issue because a lot of the problems we are dealing with are seizure issues. Humane law enforcement officers or even shelter workers call and say, “Why won’t they seize these animals? We’ve made call after call.” Sometimes it’s a situation where they need a warrant to get on the property, and the person who’s advised them won’t go on the record and make a statement.

I always have a thing that if you seize animals, you need to charge somebody, and if you charge somebody, you need to seize animals. If somebody is mistreating their animals, you should seize them because that’s a crime being committed, and you need to make sure the animals are safe and taken care of, and you also need them as the evidence of the crime. And if you charge somebody, you certainly shouldn’t leave the animals behind, because if you do, I could hear a defense attorney arguing, “How bad could it be? You left them there.”

Do you think it’s always appropriate to charge someone with a crime in these cases?

There are many situations where a warning and education is the appropriate way to go. The difference is whether or not you think there has been a crime committed based on the laws in your state, and whether or not you think that it’s continuing. And if it is, and you have no other way to resolve it, the charges will at least put somebody in a position where they at least have to deal with the consequences of this crime. You can’t make people do things without some sort of court order. So in situations like hoarding, where you know that there’s possibly a psychological thing going on, the court can order them to do things; whereas a rescue group, or shelter, or a humane officer, all you can do is request that they do things. It’s certainly a case-by-case decision, where the person investigating has to determine the right thing to do. Especially in cases where somebody has very good intentions and they’re just trying to help as many animals as they can, but they’ve gone a little bit overboard, maybe the best way is to try to work with them.

Can you talk a little bit about the relationships between shelters and ACOs and local law enforcement?

Every state has different ways of enforcing the cruelty laws. Some states it’s the police, some states it’s animal control officers, some states it’s humane officers like the SPCA officers or humane society officers—they’re all different. But there are some places where those officers aren’t treated with as much respect as they should be. So, they are doing the best they can, but they may not be getting the backup, or they’re not kept in the loop.

I think as we become more educated on how important these cases are, prosecutors and law enforcement officers are understanding that these officers serve a really important part of this process. When you get called on a case, police officers very often don’t know if something’s cruel or not. So they need someone who’s trained in animal care to help them in situations where they’re not sure what to charge.

What are some of the misunderstandings around animal cruelty investigations?

One thing that will bother me is I’ll see a one-count charge for a number of animals, when it should be one charge for every animal who’s been abused. I always make the analogy that if someone went out and slashed tires in a neighborhood, you would charge them for every car that was vandalized. It’s even more important in a case of animal cruelty, I think, because every single animal suffered. Some states now have actually put into their laws that each separate act represents a separate crime. Every animal deserves justice, and they deserve to have a charge.

What are some barriers to enforcement of cruelty laws?

When you have an officer that goes into a police academy, but he’s not taught anything about animal cases, it leaves them not having much of a background on how to handle these cases, and I think that’s part of what we see with police officers not wanting to deal with them. Kind of, “Let me leave this to the animal control officer or the humane society.”

Police officers are 24/7, whereas humane societies and animal control very often are not on duty 24/7. They don’t have the resources that police officers do. They can’t bring the additional charges that can be charged in many cases.

We need the police to be involved in these cases because they have resources and abilities and training that our humane officers might not have. The animal control officers, the humane officers, and the shelter workers can all provide expertise in areas that the police don’t know about regarding animal care and what these animals need. You need both of these groups working together.

What should shelters and other animal welfare groups do to build relationships with law enforcement and prosecutors?

I think it’s really important for everybody that does this type of work to know who the person is in their county or in their city that handles animal cruelty cases. You don’t want to have to figure it out after something comes to you—you want to know in advance who’s going to handle the case. In some cases, there’s one prosecutor in the county that’s assigned to all the cruelty cases, and you want to know who that is and start to develop a relationship with them. In a very polite way, ask if you can come in and meet with them talk about a procedure in advance of how the cases are going to be handled. Some officers are going to be more receptive to that. Some won’t be at all, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Some prosecutors have specific ways they like things to be handled, and it sets up a situation where, when something happens, you know who the person is that’s gonna get it, and you know what they’re looking for from you.

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