All the way from Suffolk County, New York, I now present the newest trick for the legislature that has solved all other problems, the animal abuser registry:
Suffolk County has officially become the first county in the nation to pass a bill to establish a public animal abuser registry. Authored by the legislature’s majority leader, Jon Cooper, D-Lloyd Harbor, the bill creates the first publicly searchable database of convicted animal abusers, which Cooper said he hopes officially exists within the next few months.
It’s basically the same idea as a sex offender registry, but for people who are convicted of abusing animals. They will have to register for five years, paying a $50 fee each time.
I’m having trouble finding details about the registration plan, but based on how the sex offender registries have worked, I think it’s safe to make some predictions about the problems we’ll see if this dumb idea catches on:
- The registry requirement will be retroactive. Thus, people who previously plead guilty to an animal abuse crime–e.g. to get out of jail with time served because they couldn’t afford bail–will find that the state has reneged on the deal–by adding the registration requirement and fine of up to $250. (The justification will be that registration is not a criminal penalty but an administrative procedure, which makes breaking promises okay.)
- The premise will turn out to be false. I suspect that animal abusers, like child molesters, are mostly opportunistic, not predatory. They will mistreat their own pets, but they are unlikely to go hunting around the neighborhood to abuse pets. (That happens, but I’ll bet it’s not a typical animal abuse case, not by far.)
- The definition of animal abuse used by the registry will turn out to be more expansive than people are expecting. You might think sex offender means a child molster, but there are people on sex offender registries for hiring adult prostitutes. (I’ve heard rumors of cases of drunks who pass out while urinating in an alley or a park. When they wake up, they’re being charged with indecent exposure, and they end up having to register as sex offenders.) Similarly, expect the animal abuse registry to include people who violate leash laws, miss vaccination dates, or fail to pay for pet licenses.
- Reciprocity will be a nightmare. It’s bad enough for sex offenders, having to figure out whether a crime they committed in another state is registerable in the state where they live. I suspect it will be even worse for animal abuse, since the crimes and punishments are likely to be more broadly defined.
- The information in the registry will be nearly useless. For example, according to the Chicago sex offender registry, there are four sex offenders who live within 1/4 mile of my house. There’s some descriptive information, but there’s no description of the nature of the crime, how long ago it happened, how long they’ve been out of prison, whether they’re under supervision, or if there were mitigating circumstances. There’s a difference between a predatory child molester who’s just been let out, a guy who raped a woman 25 years ago, and an 18-year-old guy who had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. It’s hard to imagine that the animal registry will be any more detailed or useful.
- Animal fanatics will harass people on the list. You know it will happen.
Advocates of animal abuse registries think they have a response for that last point:
Other states also expressed concern over the fact that if these abusers’ names were readily accessible, members of the public would harass abusers. Otto disagreed with this statement.
“There is no right to privacy when it comes to criminal history,” [said Stephan Otto, the director of legislative affairs at the Animal Legal Defense Fund]. “There are other ways for people to find out this information if they really want to know it. This just makes the process more efficient.”
How can Stephan Otto be smart enough to become director of legislative affairs for the ALDF, and yet not see that making it easier for people to find animal abusers will consequently make it easier for people to harass animal abusers? I’ve thought about trying to teach Stephan Otto how this works by posting his home address and phone number right here. After all, it only took me a few minutes on the web to find it, so by his logic there’s no harm in publishing it, right?
Cooper added, “I think that the public has the right to know if their next door neighbor has been torturing dogs.”
As Stephan Otto has helpfully pointed out, they already have the right to do this, because their next door neighbor’s criminal history is a public record. So why do we need registration, again?
Another problem with Cooper’s statement is the explicit assumption that people arrested for animal abuse have been torturing animals. There are other types of abuse that are included in the animal abuse statistics besides torture. Many of those are equally repulsive, but some of the other categories include neglect, hoarding, smuggling, and theft, which are not the same kinds of crimes.
(Neglect, I should point out, is not always intentional cruelty. Sometimes people take on more than they can handle, or the animal caretaker gets sick, or they can’t afford proper care, or they simply don’t know how to take care of an animal with special needs. These are problems, but not necessarily the sort of sadism that might justify abuse registration.)
I’m especially concerned with how animal abuse is defined. People in the animal rights movement have some pretty broad ideas about what constitutes animal cruelty, and I’m guessing that these ideas are law in some counties and municipalites, which are likely to be the same ones that will pass animal abuse registry laws. For example, animal rights activists have been campaigning against breeding of pets, complaining about amateur breeders creating too many animals without homes and excoriating professional breeders for cruel breeding practices. So it’s conceivable that you could get busted in one town for letting your cat have kittens and then move to another town and find you’re now required to register as an animal abuser. (I don’t actually know of anywhere that criminalizes puppies and kittens currently.)
The Suffolk County registration program also has an interesting conflict of interest, because it will be run by the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), with funding from the registration fees. In other words, the SPCA will be depending in part on a continual supply of animal abusers for its operating income. That can’t lead anywhere good.
Look, I have three cats, and I wouldn’t want to see them hurt, but this kind of law is just political grandstanding. If anyone seriously believed that criminal registries were really an effective crime fighting tool, you’d see them for other kinds of crimes. How come sex offenders have to register, but murderers don’t? I mean, wouldn’t you want to know if your neighbor was a murderer? Or even better, wouldn’t you want to know if someone in your neighborhood was an arsonist? That could really be a problem.