By: Susanne M. Suiter and Sarah Rissman Taitt
A unique characteristic of animal law practice is that it can involve concurrent criminal and civil issues. The current case management system handles this unique characteristic in a disjointed manner, which can result in inconsistent rulings, duplicative and money-wasting efforts, and failure to serve the best interests of the animal involved. To illustrate, an animal neglect or cruelty violation can be enforced by local governments using civil processes and penalties, and separately be prosecuted as a criminal violation under state statutes by the state attorney’s office.1 Further, a local government can pursue civil custody of neglected or mistreated animals,2 while the state attorney’s office can independently proceed to take custody of the animals during prosecution of the criminal violation.3 These situations can result in simultaneous court proceedings for the same set of facts and circumstances, with the potential for differing legal outcomes for the involved parties and animals. This article explores the new option of an integrated animal court to conserve state and local resources, enhance judicial productivity, enforce judicial powers, and limit individual constitutional implications — all while promoting awareness of the community’s responsibility for animal welfare and ensuring that the animals involved reach humane dispositions promptly.
Case Study: Demonstrating a Need for Integrated Animal Court 4
In January 2008, Lake County Animal Services took possession of 11 dogs and six puppies in response to allegations of animal cruelty. The adult dogs had excessive fleas, open wounds, and scars indicating they were involved in dog fighting. Additionally, animal services staff could not approach or safely touch the dogs. The State of Florida brought criminal felony charges against the owners for dog fighting and baiting.5 As part of the criminal proceedings, the state sought and received an emergency order to euthanize the animals, citing extreme aggression and difficulty placing the animals in a safe and secure location. Defendant animal owners filed a writ of prohibition with the Fifth District Court of Appeal to stay the circuit court’s order. A stay in the criminal case was entered by the Fifth District pending the parties showing cause why the writ should not be issued.
Concurrent with the above criminal proceedings, the county sought permanent legal custody of the animals under F.S. §828.073, a civil petition procedure in the county court. This action was delayed until further proceedings in the criminal case. Five months after seizing the animals, the defendants were convicted and the criminal stay was lifted, allowing the county court to hold a hearing on the disposition of the animals. During the pendency of the criminal actions, the dogs were held at the county animal shelter. The county court ultimately entered an order granting the county permanent legal custody of the animals, which allowed the county to determine proper disposition of the animals.
As a result of the above cases, considerable time and resources were spent resolving the jurisdictional and evidentiary issues. The dual cases were often duplicative and contradictory, involving the same witnesses and evidence, yet in proceedings with different attorneys, judges, and burdens of proof. The county incurred more than $11,000 in expenses to house, feed, and care for the animals while the stay was pending. Additionally, the county struggled to maintain space for the animals while normal operations at the shelter continued. Unfortunately, similar scenarios are a routine occurrence.6
Current System in Florida
The above case study demonstrates how the current system handles cases involving animals with concurrent civil and criminal issues resulting in multiple open cases before different judges in different divisions but involving the same parties. This divided system lacks continuity and efficiency and results in potentially incongruous orders. A civil court judge may never hear about an order of protection issued in a criminal court, and a criminal court judge may never learn about custody issues that arise in civil court. Additionally, as more than half of the cases involve overlapping parties and issues, the result is that expert witnesses, lay witnesses, and animal service personnel appear at multiple hearings.7 The current judicial system requires service providers to duplicate their efforts, resulting in higher costs. Further, any increase in the amount of time spent by animals in a shelter while awaiting a final disposition causes unnecessary stress on the animal, which results in long-term health consequences and impacts the animal’s adoptability.8
The Solution: Integrated Animal Court Policy
An integrated animal court — with a single presiding judge specialized to handle both civil and criminal matters — is better equipped to serve the legal and welfare needs of animals and parties. An integrated animal court reduces the impact of inconsistent orders on law enforcement, witnesses, and the parties. An added benefit to parties is that fewer court appearances minimize the disruption in litigants’ personal and professional lives. Lastly, an integrated animal court reduces the duplication of services and maximizes local resources. All these benefits work together to promote consistency and efficiency.
Above all, the most important and gratifying benefit of an integrated animal court is for the animal that is the subject of the proceeding. Whether it reduces the time the animal is held in confinement or ensures the animal is no longer at risk of being left with an unsuitable owner, an integrated and specialized animal court can strive for the most humane disposition possible.9 The need for an integrated court started with recognition at the most basic level — by a county court judge presiding over noncriminal matters who observed firsthand that the cases involved overlapping parties and issues and resulted in the untimely or inconsistent disposition of the animal(s) involved.10
The following case types would be handled by a single judge in a single division: 1) civil petitions for custody;11 2 ) civil petitions for orders to enjoin;12 3 ) civil petitions for orders to provide care;13 4) criminal misdemeanor;14 and 5) criminal felony.15 These are the case types that most frequently lead to concurrent civil and criminal litigation and often present issues with duplicative hearings, witness testimony, and inconsistent judicial orders. One approach is to divert all animal matters proceeding concurrently in criminal and civil court to a single division in circuit court. The assignment of cases to this new division could be accomplished by administrative order using existing court technology and staffing to identify animal-related cases and assign them to a single division.16 This approach would involve a front-end intake process to divert cases, provide information, make referrals to legal or social services, and assist self-represented litigants.
The creation of specialized courts has often been decided on a case-by-case basis, leaving each jurisdiction to determine whether there is a need for a specialized court. Over the years, Florida’s circuit courts have instituted a wide array of specialized courts, such as business court; juvenile court; drug court; veterans’ court; courts dealing with probate, elder, and mental health issues; courts handling tobacco cases, asbestos cases, and other complex cases — all created to deal more effectively with the complex issues facing today’s court system.17 Similarly, developing and implementing an integrated animal court should depend on the needs in a particular jurisdiction. In animal cases, the underlying need for an integrated animal court is caused by the complexities in handling concurrent criminal and civil animal law issues. However, each jurisdiction should study the case loads and frequency of overlapping parties and issues to decide whether to implement an integrated animal court. Factors to be considered by the jurisdiction include the frequency in which individual defendants are found in both civil and criminal court, duplicative appearance by animal services personnel in an individual’s case, and the number of animals involved. There may not be a need in some jurisdictions for a specialized animal court when case rates are low, when cases are not diverted through the formal court system, or when law enforcement agencies act as the animal control agency.
While an integrated animal court would save time and resources, it should also focus on enhancing community responsibility for animal welfare through outreach and education. One way to achieve this goal is to refer defendants to animal education programs, similar to traffic school, which will provide opportunities to teach animal owners how to become responsible and successful animal owners. Where appropriate, the court can raise awareness of spay and neuter programs, food assistance, low-cost vaccinations, and other educational services offered by local animal control and other animal advocacy groups, ultimately contributing to enhanced cognizance of animal welfare in the community.
There are several issues that must be considered in an integrated animal court system. First, because a case could involve both criminal and civil elements, the rights of the defendant will need to be carefully observed. For example, a criminal defendant has the right to remain silent, which often conflicts with the burden of proof in a civil case. Under F.S. §828.073, once the government agency shows that the animal is neglected or mistreated, it is the owner’s burden to prove the animals will be adequately provided for in the owner’s custody.17 Other criminal/civil issues that should also be considered when converting to an integrated system are speedy trial, right to jury trial, and double jeopardy.19 It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into each of these issues separately, but the resolution of these issues should be specified in the administrative order establishing the integrated animal court.20
A second area that warrants further discussion is designating the agency responsible for prosecution of the case. Currently, the state prosecutes criminal animal violations, and the local government or society for prevention of cruelty to animals pursues civil violations.21 Under the integrated system, one agency would be assigned to prosecute both the criminal and civil cases. This would likely need to be the state attorney’s office, because that office has jurisdiction over felonies. Alternatively, a state attorney could choose to designate city or county attorneys as special assistant state attorneys with the authority to prosecute felony cases relating to animals. Thus, cooperation from each circuit’s office of the state attorney is necessary to implement an integrated system.
Finally, the penalties imposed under the integrated animal court should be addressed. Currently, when a local animal control ordinance is violated, the animal owner must pay civil penalties. The owner may also be subject to criminal prosecution and payment of associated criminal penalties. Under an integrated system, there should be one fee schedule or penalty system to consult when meting out a sentence. Likely, the structure of the criminal penalty system provides the best model for the integrated court, but restitution should be included to help address the costs incurred by local agencies. For example, when an animal is seized, the local agency provides board and veterinary care for the animal while in its custody. If an owner is deemed unfit to care for the animal and the local agency is given permanent control, the administrative order establishing the animal court should provide the court authority to order the owner to pay the costs incurred by the local agency, in addition to any criminal penalty imposed.
An integrated animal court can protect animal welfare and streamline the court’s organizational, procedural, and resource needs. This model promotes a comprehensive, efficient, and effective approach to handling cases concerning animals. Integrating civil and criminal cases with a single judge will allow the court to make fully informed decisions, speed a case’s progress, improve defendant accountability, enhance community safety, eliminate the potential for conflicting judicial orders, and acquire the best outcome possible for the animal(s) involved. While an integrated animal court has not been tried and tested, each jurisdiction should evaluate whether such a court is the best model to replace the current system. The jurisdictional need for action is best determined by the judges, attorneys, and animal services personnel currently handling the case types discussed in this article. With some creativity, hard work, and cooperation, it is possible to develop and implement an integrated animal court that can serve as a model for jurisdictions within the state and around the country.
1 See Fla. Stat. §828.27(7) (2013), which empowers local governments to enact cruelty ordinances identical to the provisions of state law, except as to penalty.
2 See Fla. Stat. §828.073 (2013).
3 This can be accomplished through a civil forfeiture action under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, Fla. Stat. §§932.701-932.706, or by seeking an emergency order, as demonstrated in the Lake County case study.
4 These facts and circumstances are from a particularly lengthy and complicated case in Lake County, but similar situations happen, on a smaller scale, in local jurisdictions around the state.
5 See Fla. Stat. §828.122 (2013), providing that animal fighting or baiting is a third-degree felony.
6 Family Living in Home of Apopka Dogfighting Bust Says He Wants Dogs Back, WFTV.com, May 29, 2014, available at http://www.wftv.com/news/news/local/man-who-lived-home-apopka-dog-fighting-bust-says-h/nf863/ (“The dogs are considered evidence in a crime, but Apopka police also consider them victims of cruelty….”).
7 Interview, Pamela Perry, Animal Services Investigations Manager, Hillsborough County Animal Services (April 23, 2014).
9 These policy issues are similar to those considered during the process of establishing Florida’s Unified Family Court. See In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 588 So. 2d 586 (Fla. 1991); In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 633 So. 2d 14, 16 (Fla. 1994); In re: Report of the Commission on Family Courts, 646 So. 2d 178, 179 (Fla. 1994); In re: Report of the Family Court Steering Committee, 794 So. 2d 518 (Fla. 2001).
10 Judge Nick Nazaretian, who served as the inspiration for this article, noticed these common issues in cases involving animals.
11 Fla. Stat. §828.073(2)(a) (2013).
12 Fla. Stat. §828.073(4)(c) (2013). Upon a finding by the court that an owner is not fit to have custody of animals, the court may enjoin the owner’s further possession or custody of animals. This remedy is typically included in a petition for custody’s prayers for relief.
13 Fla. Stat. §828.073(2)(b) (2013).
14 Fla. Stat. §828.12(1) (2013).
15 Fla. Stat. §828.12(2) (2013).
16 See Jud. R. Admin. 2.215. (2013).
17 Administrative Order No. 2003-17-1, In the Circuit Court of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in and for Orange County, Florida, (Nov. 26, 2003), nunc pro tunc August 1, 2003, available at http://www.ninja9.org/courts/Business/Forms/administrativeorder.htm; Administrative Order No. S-2013-021, In the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit in and for Hillsborough County, Florida (April 18, 2013), available at http://www.fljud13.org/Portals/0/AO/DOCS/2013-021-S.pdf; Administrative Order No. 11-04, In the Circuit Court of the 11th Judicial Circuit in and for Miami Dade County, Florida, (May 19, 2011), available at https://www.jud11.flcourts.org/docs/CBL%20Section%20Procedures%20and%20AOC-11-04.pdf.
18 Fla. Stat. §828.073(6) (2013).
19 The constitutional rights afforded to criminal defendants should be observed in the integrated animal court. Waiver of these rights is a decision each criminal defendant can make, and a court cannot require a defendant to waive these rights. The right to speedy trial should not be a major obstacle, since the need for expediency in animal cases is usually on the civil side, where quick disposition of the animals is a primary goal. Any difficulties in implementing jury trials for combined civil/criminal cases can be minimized by appointing smaller jury panels. Double jeopardy prohibitions can likely be avoided by combining resolution of all violations into one order/verdict form, or providing for lesser included offenses.
20 The agencies with knowledge in these areas that can help resolve such issues during the establishment of the integrated animal court are the local animal control authority, local law enforcement authority, state attorney’s office, public defender’s office, clerk of court, and the chief judge of the circuit.
21 Fla. Stat. §27.02 (2013) provides authority to the state attorney to prosecute criminal suits on behalf of the state. Fla. Stat. §§828.03 and 828.073 (2013), provides for the county or a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals to investigate animal law violations.
Susanne M. Suiter is an associate with the law firm of Caglianone & Miller, P.A. She practices out of the firm’s Brooksville office handling civil defense litigation. She earned her J.D. from Oklahoma City University where she graduated magna cum laude .She is a member of The Florida Bar’s Animal Law Committee.
Sarah Rissman Taitt is an assistant county attorney in Osceola County. Her practice focuses on land use law, animal law, and public compliance. She is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law. She is currently a vice chair on The Florida Bar’s Animal Law Committee.
Judge Peter (Nick) Nazaretian, circuit judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit, was the inspiration behind the concept of an integrated animal court and it was his thought-provoking idea that made this article a reality.