AP NEWS

Lawmakers OK stronger penalties for animal abuse

May 3, 2019

Arizonans who purposely kill or torture family pets could soon face stiffer prison terms — or at least mandatory counseling.

On a 42-18 margin the House gave final approval to legislation to make it a Class 5 felony to intentionally or knowingly subject a pet to “cruel mistreatment’’ or kill a pet without the consent of the owner. The measure now goes to the governor.

Current law makes all forms of animal cruelty a Class 6 felony with a presumptive term of a year in prison. HB 2671 would boost that to 18 months for this kind of action.

But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the aim isn’t necessarily to put people behind bars for longer periods of time.

The problem with the current law, he said, is that judges are free to treat Class 6 felonies as misdemeanors. And what that means, Kavanagh said, is that those found guilty can be placed on what amounts to unsupervised probation.

He said those convicted of Class 5 felonies also can be placed on probation. But the difference, said Kavanagh, is that a judge can force that person to get counseling.

“We’re talking about getting people who are really deranged into mandatory treatment and counseling and supervision so they don’t injure more animals or people in their household,’’ he said.

“There’s a great link between domestic violence and abusing animals,’’ Kavanagh said. “These people need help. This bill gets them help.’’

And Rep. Alma Heranandez, D-Tucson, said the links go beyond that. She said serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer started out abusing animals.

But Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, questioned whether people will get help.

He said the only similar counseling programs that now exist are for those involved in domestic violence, programs he said are not suited to the crimes committed. And Rodriguez worried that some of these people will wind up behind bars, not only increasing the prison population but exposing them to even more-violent individuals.

The discussion took an often-heartbreaking turn as some lawmakers told of incidents of intentional abuse and cruelty they came across.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, told of his prior experience as a constable, finding situations where dogs were so badly starved that they ate their own puppies.

“If this bill makes people stop and think before they purchase animals that this is a lifelong commitment for that animal,’’ he said. “To me, abandoned animals is torture.’’

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said he fears the language of the bill goes too far in criminalizing conduct that may be justified.

“If I have a $15,000 rope horse in my corral and I come out and there is a pack of dogs or dogs attacking that $15,000 rope horse, I’m going to shoot that dog and protect my property,’’ he said.

“If I have a yard and the dog comes in there and attacks my child, that dog’s gone,’’ Cook continued. “I’m going to protect my family and my property.’’

But Kavanagh argued that existing law already permits people to use physical force to protect themselves and their property.

Cook was not convinced, saying that the penalty for a Class 5 felony is the same as what’s available for certain crimes against children.

“I just can’t put animals over children,’’ he said.