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Canine Al Capone? Tax Evasion May Not Give Authorities Grounds to Seize Dogs from Puppy Mills

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Virginia and Kristin Garwood operated Breezy Valley Dairy Farm in Mauckport, Indiana, a family farm that had been in the Garwood family for thirty years. In 2007, the rising price of grain and falling price of milk put the farm in financial jeopardy. Virginia decided to supplement the family’s income by selling dogs. She started the dog breeding business by buying a pregnant Cocker Spaniel and selling her four puppies for a total of $400. She also sold two of her own Australian Shepherd’s puppies for $150. That same year, Virginia bought 34 more breeding dogs, but could not breed all of them immediately due to health issues.

In 2008, Virginia purchased even more breeding stock, and sold 52 dogs for a total of $4,144. Animal control received a complaint about the treatment and sale of one of Garwood’s dogs. When animal control officials investigated the Garwoods in October 2008, Virginia was uncooperative.

In late 2008 and early 2009, a friend of the Garwoods shut down his dog breeding business and gave the Garwoods dogs that were either “undesirable breeds” or incredibly unkempt. Virginia treated, groomed and sold the dogs, and gave most of the proceeds to her friend. Two more complaints trickled to animal control, and animal control reported the Garwoods as a possible puppy mill to the Office of the Attorney General (AG).

At the time, Indiana did not have a puppy mill statute and Indiana law did not define the term “puppy mill.”  There were no laws that criminalized actions like the Garwood’s breeding and dog selling practices. Taking a page about Al Capone from the history books, the authorities looked to tax evasion laws as a way to go against the Garwoods.

In early 2009, the AG and the Indiana Department of State Revenue began investigating the Garwoods for state income and sales tax evasion. The authorities even went so far as to set up an undercover “sting operation” to buy two puppies from the Garwoods for $550. The Garwoods gave no receipts, but claimed orally that sales tax was included in the price.

The authorities now had what they needed to move in on the Garwoods. On May 29, 2008, the Department of State Revenue issued “jeopardy assessment” notices, demands, vouchers and warrants against the Garwoods. The officials concluded that Virginia and Kristin each owed over $142,000 in taxes, penalties and interest.

In the early morning hours of June 2, 2008, the authorities served the Garwoods with the jeopardy assessment documents, and demanded immediate payment in full of all tax, penalties and interest. Not surprisingly, the Garwoods were unable to pay in full.

The tax officials, assisted by the Indiana State Police and 60 volunteers from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Missouri Humane Society seized all 240 dogs, including pets and farm dogs. The authorities also seized $1260 in cash, $1325 in checks, tax returns, and records showing that the Garwoods made over $25,000 from selling dogs.

The next day, the Indiana authorities sold all 240 dogs to HSUS for a total of $300. A local news channel posted photos on its website showing the crowded conditions and stacked cages that the dogs lived in.

The Garwoods filed a tax appeal challenged the state’s authority to seize their dogs. Just last month, the Indiana Tax Court issued its 15-page decision.

The tax court began its analysis by pointing out that the state’s power to pursue a “jeopardy assessment” is very limited, and warranted in only four situations – when the taxpayer is about to: (1) quickly leave the state; (2) remove property from the state; (3) conceal property in the state; or (4) do any other act that would jeopardize collection of taxes.

The Indiana tax officials were not arguing the first two points – that the Garwoods were trying to leave the state or take property out of the state. Rather, they relied on the last two prongs – concealing property in the state and actions jeopardizing tax collection – to justify the jeopardy assessments.

Arguing that the Garwoods were concealing property, the officials pointed to Virginia’s refusal to cooperate with animal control officers, and the fact that the dogs could easily be sold in bulk or set free. The tax court dismissed these arguments out of hand, calling them “specious non sequiturs” (ouch!).

The officials relied heavily on the fourth prong to justify the jeopardy assessments. In deciding what kinds of actions could constitute “any other act that would jeopardize collection of taxes,” the officials consulted IRS publications and guidelines. The officials then pointed to several facts to justify seizing the dogs – the Garwoods advertised the dogs in local newspapers, bred and sold the dogs, failed to register as a retail merchant, failed to prepare and file sales tax returns, and failed to report the income on their tax returns.

Once again, the tax court ignored these arguments. In a dismissive footnote, the tax court gave no weight whatsoever to the IRS guidelines. The tax court concluded that these facts merely showed the Garwoods were not paying taxes, but not that they were jeopardizing collection efforts.

At the end of the opinion, the tax court gratuitously scolded the authorities for the media hype surrounding the case. The court also pointed out a serious flaw with the case – the officials sold the 240 dogs to HSUS for a mere $300. In the tax court’s mind, this showed that the state wasn’t actually motivated by filling its coffers with tax revenues, but instead wanted to shut down a puppy mill. The huge gap between the $300 price tag and the $142,000 tax bill against Virginia and Kristin Garwood didn’t help matters.

At the very least, Virginia and Kristin Garwood did plead guilty to tax evasion, and received suspended sentences with probation.  In the meantime, the Indiana Office of the Attorney General has indicated that they plan to appeal the tax court’s decision to the Indiana Supreme Court.

This case shows the incredible need for strong laws aimed at puppy mills. Fortunately, Indiana passed a puppy mill statute in 2009 that requires commercial dog breeders to register with the state and keep basic records, and imposes minimal standards of care on the breeders. But Indiana’s puppy mill statute still may not address most critical issue posed by the Garwood case – the need to give authorities the power to seize dogs caught up in abusive or neglectful circumstances.

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

One thought on “Canine Al Capone? Tax Evasion May Not Give Authorities Grounds to Seize Dogs from Puppy Mills

  1. Pingback: So How Much is my Dog or Cat Worth? « Companion Animal Law Blog

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