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Bill modifies penalties for animal cruelty, with focus on companion animals
Months before the current controversy of alleged animal cruelty by employees of Conklin Dairy Farms, Rep. Williams and Combs introduced H.B. 55 to revise portions of Ohio's animal cruelty law. Yesterday, the Ohio House passed the animal cruelty bill, which had been introduced last March.
H.B. 55 focuses largely on cruelty to "companion animals," which includes dogs, cats, and any animal kept inside a residential dwelling. Changes to the companion animals provisions include authority to order child offenders to undergo counseling and psychological treatment, inclusion of companion animals in court protection orders, and requirements for the State to approve continuing education courses on animal abuse counseling for medical and social work professions.
In regards to cruelty to animals other than companion animals, H.B. 55 adds a new penalty provision. The penalty remains a second degree misdemeanor for first offenses, but increases to a first degree misdemeanor for subsequent violations of the law. Current law addresses each offense as a second degree misdemeanor. Under Ohio law, a first degree misdemeanor can result in a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, while a second degree misdemeanor violation carries a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.
What is cruelty to animals? Ohio's animal cruelty law is Ohio Revised Code section 951.13, which states that "no person shall:
- (1) Torture an animal, deprive one of necessary sustenance, unnecessarily or cruelly beat, needlessly mutilate or kill, or impound or confine an animal without supplying it during such confinement with a sufficient quantity of good wholesome food and water;
- (2) Impound or confine an animal without affording it, during such confinement, access to shelter from wind, rain, snow, or excessive direct sunlight if it can reasonably be expected that the animals would otherwise become sick or in some other way suffer. Division (A)(2) of this section does not apply to animals impounded or confined prior to slaughter. For the purpose of this section, shelter means a man-made enclosure, windbreak, sunshade, or natural windbreak or sunshade that is developed from the earth’s contour, tree development, or vegetation;
- (3) Carry or convey an animal in a cruel or inhumane manner;
- (4) Keep animals other than cattle, poultry or fowl, swine, sheep, or goats in an enclosure without wholesome exercise and change of air, nor or feed cows on food that produces impure or unwholesome milk;
- (5) Detain livestock in railroad cars or compartments longer than twenty-eight hours after they are so placed without supplying them with necessary food, water, and attention, nor permit such stock to be so crowded as to overlie, crush, wound, or kill each other."
Before passing H.B. 55 yesterday, the House included floor amendments that make minor revisions to the dangerous and vicious dog provisions in Ohio Revised Code 955.11.
The Ohio Senate has not introduced a similar animal cruelty bill, and has only a few more sessions until its summer recess begins in early June. If the Senate doesn't pass the animal cruelty legislation before the end of the year, the bill will expire and must be reintroduced after January, in the next session of the Ohio General Assembly.
Animal rights groups have advocated around the country for stiffer penalties on animal cruelty offenses. Most state animal cruelty laws contain both misdemeanor and felony penalties, with the more severe felony charges typically applying to acts that are intentional, heinous or involve mutilation. Under Ohio law, felony charges apply to certain offenses against companion animals and some dog-fighting offenses. For an overview of state animal cruelty laws, visit this publication by the Michigan Animal Legal and Historical Center. View the entire chapter of Ohio law on offenses to domestic animals, which includes the animal cruelty law and various penalty provisions, here.
Bill introduced in Ohio House of Representatives to clarify liability standards
A recurring problem around Ohio may be resolved if H.B. 503 progresses through the General Assembly before the end of the year. Representatives Bubp (R-88th Dist.) and Garrison (D-93rd Dist.) recently introduced the bill to revise Ohio's animals at large law. The proposal clarifies the standards for civil and criminal liability under the law.
The animals running at large law, found in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 951, states that no owner or keeper of horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, or geese "shall permit" the animals to run at large on public roads or outside of their enclosures. Many law officers, prosecutors and judges have interpreted the word "shall" as a trigger for automatic liability--if an animal is out, the owner is liable. But in a case before the Ohio Supreme Court, the court stated that the law does not establish automatic liability. The court explained that the law creates the duty to exercise ordinary care to keep animals from running at large and sets up a "rebuttable presumption" of liability. An animal owner whose animals are found running at large has the opportunity to rebut the presumption of liability and prove that he or she exercised ordinary care to contain the animals. Despite the Supreme Court opinion, animal owners have continued to be subject to prosecution under an automatic liability standard.
H.B. 503 removes the possibility of interpreting the animals at large law as a strict liability law and lays out two different standards for civil and criminal liability. An owner or keeper of animals who "negligently" permits animals to run at large is liable for all damages caused by the animal, and an owner or keeper who "recklessly" permits animals to run at large is guilty of a fourth degree criminal misdemeanor. Under Ohio law, "negligence" is the failure to exercise ordinary care, while "recklessness" is acting with indifference to consequences and with disregard to a known risk.
H.B. 503 would alleviate the problems many animal owners in Ohio have faced--potential criminal liability when natural disasters, vandals, pranksters or neighbor disputes, rather than the owner's action or inaction, caused the release of the animals. A disturbing increase in such incidents led the Ohio State Bar Association and its Agricultural Law Committee to work with H.B. 503 sponsors to develop the revisions. View H.B. 503 here.
Appellate Court decides that a livestock trailer is "farm machinery" under Ohio law
Why does it matter? A "motor vehicle" must display a license plate according to Ohio Revised Code Section 4503.21(A), but "farm machinery" is exempt from the requirement.
When a farmer pulling a trailer loaded with cattle in Wayne County did not have a license plate on the trailer, a state trooper cited him for violating ORC 4503.21(A). The farmer argued that the trailer did not require a license plate because it was exempt as "farm machinery." The municipal court judge disagreed because the trailer fits within the definition of "motor vehicle." The court found the farmer guilty of a minor misdemeanor. But a later opinion issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judge's decision and held that the livestock trailer is "farm machinery" that is exempt from Ohio's license plate requirements.
Confusing? As with many Ohio laws relating to agriculture, the statute itself is likely responsible for the confusion. The license plate law states in Ohio Revised Code Section 4503.21 that:
- "(A) No person who is the owner or operator of a motor vehicle shall fail to display in plain view on the front and rear of the motor vehicle the distinctive number and registration mark . . . except that . . . the owner or operator of a motorcycle, motorized bicycle, manufactured home, mobile home, trailer, or semitrailer shall display on the rear only. . ." [emphasis added]
In conclusion, a "trailer" must have a rear license plate. The law defines a "trailer" in Ohio Revised Code Section 4501(M), which includes, among other things:
- " . . . a vehicle used to transport agricultural produce or agricultural production materials between a local place of storage or supply and the farm when drawn or towed on a public road or highway at a speed greater than twenty-five miles per hour . . ."
And so it appears that a trailer transporting livestock to a sale in Wayne County should have displayed a rear license plate. Not so, said the court, because the law also states in the definition of "motor vehicle" that the definition does not include "farm machinery." If a trailer transporting livestock fits within the definition of "farm machinery," then it is not a motor vehicle that requires a license plate, the court reasoned. Which brings us to the definition of "farm machinery" in ORC 4503.01(U); that definition begins:
- “ 'Farm machinery' means all machines and tools that are used in the production, harvesting, and care of farm products, and includes trailers that are used to transport agricultural produce or agricultural production materials between a local place of storage or supply and the farm . . . [emphasis added]
Hence, the confusion--two similar references to trailers used for agricultural purposes, but with different outcomes. The appellate focused on the "farm machinery" definition to determine the outcome of the case, and stated:
- "We conclude that the cattle Mr. Besancon was hauling were "agricultural produce" under Section 4501.01(U) because they were the progeny of livestock animals. We further conclude that the auction house is a “place of . . . supply” under that section because it is a location at which goods are offered for sale at various prices. A magistrate found that Mr. Besancon was using the livestock trailer to transport cattle to an auction house. Mr. Besancon, therefore, was using it to transport agricultural produce between a local place of supply and his farm. Accordingly, it was farm machinery under Section 4501.01(U)."
The impact of the Ninth District court's decision could extend beyond the license plate law. Many other highway and traffic laws include mention of "farm machinery" and utilize the same definition for "farm machinery" found in ORC 4501.01(U). The Besancon case provides other courts, especially those in northeast Ohio's ninth appellate district, a basis for sorting through the muddled treatment of agriculture in Ohio roadway laws.
See State v. Besancon, 2010-Ohio-2147, here.