News Focus: Can “Defense Of Others” Apply In Animal Abuse Cases?

Posted on Friday, January 6th, 2017 at 11:59 am    

By Rachel Silber, Spolin Law Criminal and Civil Rights Law Clerk

Riverside Police arrested a man who is accused of killing a pit bull dog.  However, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the Pit Bull was attacking—and eventually killed—the accused man’s poodle.  Read the below analysis for a discussion of “defense of others” and animal abuse laws.

The poodle was on his owner’s property when the pit bull attacked.  After the pit bull clamped his jaws around the poodle’s body, it took three neighbors to unhinge the aggressor dog’s jaws and release the poodle.  According to witnesses, it appeared that the poodle was dead at that time. Authorities then report that the poodle owner (e.g., the defendant), killed the pit bull either at the end of or directly after the dog fight. (Los Angeles Times). On the suspicion of felony animal cruelty, the poodle owner was arrested. He was released on Christmas when he posted $10,000 bail. Whether the pit bull bit the accused when he was trying to unhinge the pit bull’s jaw is unclear. However, the accusation that the poodle was already dead before the pit bull was killed is a key factor in why this case is alleged to be animal cruelty.

Penal Code section 597, California’s animal abuse law, has very strict guidelines that outline what qualifies as animal abuse, and provide specific details to determine the severity of the case. These particulars determine whether the case is to be treated as a misdemeanor or felony. The Penal Code (PC) states that any person who, “maliciously and intentionally maims, mutilates, tortures, or wounds a living animal, or maliciously and intentionally kills an animal” is subject to state imprisonment and/or $20,000 in fines if found guilty as a misdemeanor. (PC § 597) However, if the severity of the animal cruelty case warrants a felony, the punishment is subject to two to three years in prison. Additionally, Penal Code section 12022 conditions that the use of a deadly weapon in the case may add an additional year to the sentence (PC § 12022). The accused was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty because he reportedly violated Penal Code section 597 by intentionally killing the pit bull with a dangerous weapon. If the accused killed the pit bull after his own dog was already dead, and the accused knew that own dog was no longer in danger, that would preclude the affirmative defense of “defense of others.”

If evidence arises showing that the accused acted in defense of his dog while he thought the dog was still alive, then the nature of the case would shift. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions 3470 outlines the particulars of “self defense”/“defense of others” and how it could be applicable to this case. The Judicial Council instructs that if the defendant reasonably believed the defense of another was needed to protect against immediate danger, then the defendant may use proportional force to act against the attacker. If future evidence establishes that the accused attacked the pit bull out of “defense of others” for the poodle while the poodle was still alive or appeared to be alive, then there may be a viable justification.  If a jury accepts a “defense of others” argument, then the accused must be found not guilty of that crime.

California self defense law was shaped by the 2005 court case People v. Lee, which held that “the defendant must actually and reasonably believe in the need to defend, the belief must be objectively reasonable, and the fear must be of imminent danger to life or great bodily injury” (Cal. Ct. App. 2005).  If one feels his or her life is in immediate danger, human or animal, they have the right for self-defense. Another legal defense that often pertains to animal cruelty cases are accidents. California Penal Code 26 positions accidents as a viable legal defense if the crime was not committed intentionally (PC § 26).

Law enforcement authorities are currently conducting an autopsy of the pit bull dog. Depending on whether the accused has a criminal record, he could face significant time in state prison if found guilty. The severity of this type of case can result in hefty fines, if not a considerable amount of jail time even if the case is reduced to a misdemeanor. This case demonstrates the seriousness with which law enforcement take animal abuse cases as well as the limitations of “self-defense” and “defense of others” arguments.

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