Bills would increase sentences for animal abuse in domestic violence

By LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Proposed bipartisan legislation to stiffen punishments for abuse to pets during domestic disputes is headed to the full Senate with the unanimous approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters say the increased penalties would help prevent both animal abuse crimes and domestic violence.

“It addresses a gap in the law right now,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, the primary sponsor. “The current statute doesn’t deal with the situation where someone is using the torture of an animal to torture a human being.

“The bills are as much domestic violence prevention as they are animal abuse prevention.”

Under Bieda’s bill, if abusers kill or torture a pet with the intent to cause mental distress to another person, they would be guilty of killing or torturing an animal in the first degree.

First degree penalties would be increased to the possibility of up to 10 years in prison. A fine of up to $5,000 or 500 hours of community service are already included in the law.

Previously, Bieda said, harming a pet was seen as a less important detail of the offenses and did not carry additional punishment.

Bieda’s bill would also amend two parts of the existing law for penalties for crimes against animals: neglect and cruelty.

Under the bill, breeders and pet shops would be included among those that can be charged with animal neglect. In addition, first, second and third degrees of killing or torturing an animal would be established. The maximum prison term for a first or second-degree offense would be increased and judges would be able to add at least five years’ probation to an animal neglect or cruelty sentence involving 25 or more animals.

“This provides more tools for the prosecutors of people who neglect their animals,” said Beatrice Friedlander of Canton, president of the statewide nonprofit group Attorneys for Animals. She added that the probation provision is likely geared toward the problem of animal hoarding.

Abusers would be guilty in the second degree if they harm a pet or if they kill or torture any animal. Second-degree abuse would be punishable by up to seven years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or up to 500 hours of community service.

Abusers would be guilty in the third degree if they kill or torture any animal. Third-degree abuse would be punishable by up to four years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or up to 500 hours of community service.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, sponsored a bill to revise sentencing guidelines regarding animal cruelty or neglect. Crimes against animals would be a much more important factor for a judge’s consideration, and one that would likely increase an offender’s sentence.

These offense variables would include crimes such as exploitation or manipulation of a vulnerable victim, and reinforce existing laws that make it illegal to kill, harm,or threaten to kill or harm an animal with the intent to cause mental suffering to a person, or to exert control over a person.

According to Jones, the laws in place make it difficult for prosecutors to deal with these kinds of crime. Jones said he hopes that the new legislation will “give prosecutors a better tool in their toolbox” to take on these cases more effectively.

Other moves in the Legislature to address animal cruelty-related issues include a separate bill, introduced earlier this session, that proposes to include animals under the state’s domestic violence law protections.

Bieda worked with the animal protection unit of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to help craft his part of the legislation. He said the unit has been seeing more frequent incidents of domestic violence that involve violence against companion animals.

Jones said he is hopeful about the fate of the legislative package, and hopes the Senate will take up the bills for a final vote before the Legislature’s summer break.

Capital News Service Correspondent Caitlin Taylor contributed to this story.