MT to decide who covers cost in animal seizure cases

Read the original article by Michael Woodel at here.

A proposal to let the courts decide whether the owner of an animal seized by law enforcement should pay for that animal’s care pending a criminal trial was heard Tuesday in the state House Agriculture Committee.

Senate Bill 320, carried by Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, would come into play in cases where law enforcement seizes animals on suspicion of cruelty or forced fighting. If the bill is passed, prosecutors in those cases would be allowed to petition the court for a cost of care hearing. Unlike petitions for animal welfare violations, cost of care petitions would require an evaluation from a veterinarian or state livestock inspector.

The animal would remain in the county’s care if a judge decides it was subjected to cruelty or forced fighting. A renewable bond “sufficient to cover the reasonable expenses” of care for 30 days would then be assessed to its owner.

The animal and the amount of the bond would be returned if the owner is found not guilty of cruelty or forced fighting in a criminal trial. Salomon said his bill stemmed from past puppy mill bills, and cases in which Montana counties ran into heavy expenses while caring for animals seized as evidence.

In one notable case, Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson said his county paid more than $100,000 through fall 2015 to care for animals seized from Rocky Acres Horse Rescue in Townsend in March 2014.

The state Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, County Attorneys Association, and Veterinary Medical Association all threw their support behind Salomon’s bill Tuesday.

“This is a good bill because it does three things,” said Deputy Director Jason Rittal of the Montana Association of Counties. “It protects the animals, it protects the owners and it protects the taxpayers to the greatest extent possible.”

The bill faced its only opponent in Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who took issue with the assessment of bond for an “alleged” criminal violation.

“Right there, you have a usurpation of a person’s due process,” Manzella said. “We don’t assess penalties on an alleged violation. We assess penalties after a crime has been proven. This is America.”

The term “alleged violation” in the bill carries over from the existing animal welfare law Salomon’s bill would amend. Under that law, prosecutors can file for an animal welfare hearing when an animal is seized pursuant to an alleged cruelty violation.

Salomon said he is willing to work on that language in the bill to reduce any concerns.

Manzella also claimed to know of “hundreds” of cases where laws similar to Salomon’s had been abused. Before the committee, she pointed to a 2015 case involving dog trainer Paul Upton, from whom the city of Indianapolis seized dozens of German shepherds.

Some of Upton’s dogs gave birth and had their puppies die in the city’s care before being returned 13 months later along with $98,000. Upton and supporters spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on the dogs’ care, according to Indianapolis ABC affiliate RTV6.

SB 320 cleared the Senate 48-1 on March 23.

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