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Worth the Cost? Virginia’s Proposed Abuser Registries

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You run a Virginia rescue, and are diligent in complying with the statutory requirement to provide signed statements from each of your directors, operators, staff, animal caregivers and fosters verifying they have never been convicted of animal cruelty, neglect or abandonment. It then comes to light that one of your staff actually has an animal cruelty conviction that you didn’t know about. You also find out that one of your directors was convicted of neglect after she signed her statement.

Although officials may understand your position in relying on the written statements, the law does provide for a civil penalty of up to $250 for noncompliance. This goes for the staff member’s animal cruelty conviction and the director’s neglect conviction, because the law makes it clear that it is your duty to update the statements if anything changes. The law imposes the same duty to obtain these statements for Virginia pounds and shelters.

Short of employing a company to do expensive background checks, or going to each courthouse to comb through criminal records, how are pounds, shelters and rescues supposed to check on the accuracy of these statements? One solution would be the creation of an animal abuser registry. In fact, Delegate Daniel W. Marshall, III from Danville introduced two bills earlier this year that would establish registries – much like Virginia’s current sex offender registry – for animal abusers and domestic abusers.

The animal abuser bill would require adults convicted of felony animal cruelty or animal fighting to register in person with the sheriff of the county or city where they live, and to re-register annually. The sheriff would have to notify every residence and business within a ½ mile radius of the abuser’s residence within ten days of the initial registration. The abuser’s information would also be kept in a central registry with the State Police, and posted publicly on the State Police website.

The animal abuser and domestic abuser bills were sent to the Committee for Courts of Justice in January. Yesterday, the Virginia State Crime Commission heard evidence that the cost of setting up both abuser registries would be $1 million, with further operating costs in the millions of dollars. The Virginia State Crime Commission is expected to vote on the proposals for these registries later this year, and the General Assembly could vote on the bills as early as the 2012 legislative session.

As a former public defender who struggled with the implications of sex offender registration on my clients, I have to give some credence to people like Wayne Pacelle of HSUS who have reservations about registries such as these. But I do think that well crafted registries can serve a function. This is particularly so with animal abuse registries, when jurisdictions like Virginia impose duties on rescues, pounds and shelters to report and update personnel information. Registries would also help to track puppy mills, dog fighting rings and animal hoarders.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s proposed animal abuser registry would track only Virginia residents, and only felony cruelty and animal fighting convictions. The first jurisdiction to pass legislation creating an animal abuser registry was Suffolk County, New York last year. I applaud efforts to be tough on animal abusers. But registries are being created in a piecemeal way, locality by locality or state by state.  Although free and easy to access, it would be incredibly time-consuming to check each one of these registries.  A much more practical solution is to have a nationwide registry that could track felony and misdemeanor cruelty, neglect and abuse convictions – a cause that some have already voluntarily taken up.

Author: Heidi Meinzer

Attorney and Animal Lover, not necessarily in that order

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