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Animal cruelty suspects would be liable for all care costs of seized animal under bill in Washington House

Chip, believed to be 5 to 6 months old, is one of the many dogs found this month abandoned in Bonner County, Idaho. Some of the dogs are now under the care of Better Together Animal Shelter Alliance in Ponderay, Idaho. The dogs are receiving veterinary care as they are nursed back to health.  (SSR)

An owner suspected of animal cruelty or neglect would be liable for all costs stemming from the seizure of that animal, under proposed legislation making its way through the Washington Legislature.

The legislation is intended to offset costs incurred by the state in caring for neglected and abused animals, said bill sponsor Democrat state Rep. Roger Goodman of Kirkland. The bill would reduce the cost of keeping animals in care facilities, a major problem according to several animal shelter representatives who spoke on behalf of the legislation Wednesday.

“Animals that are seized are languishing in shelters and not getting the care they need,” he told the committee.

The bill, which received a public hearing in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee Wednesday, says that the owners of the seized animal “shall post a bond with the district court in an amount sufficient to provide minimum care for each animal seized for 30 days, including the day on which the animal was taken into custody, regardless of whether the animal is the subject of a criminal charge.”

Per initial bill language, the owner of the animal would have been liable for care and attorney costs regardless of whether they were innocent or guilty. On Wednesday, Goodman said he would amend the bill language to allow a refund of fees.

“If the animal owner is exonerated, either through an acquittal or a dismissal of the case, then I believe it would only be fair if their attorney fees are paid and a refund of the cost of care bond,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “If the state or the seizing agency bears the burden of proving neglect or abuse or criminal activity and if attorney fees are paid if the animal owner prevails, that puts a chilling effect on frivolous seizures.”

The bill is scheduled for a vote Friday in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee.

A nationwide hunting advocacy group and a national pure bred dog registry oppose the bill.

Brian Lynn with Sportsman’s Alliance said the ambiguity of the language is alarming. For example, per the bill if a law enforcement officer or animal control officer believes an animal is in “imminent danger or is suffering serious physical injury or infirmity, or needs immediate medical attention,” the officer may enter private property without a warrant.

“What’s the definition of imminent danger,” he said. “Imminent danger would be very subjective. Oh, it’s 32 degrees out. I believe the dog is in imminent danger.”

The American Kennel Club worries the legislation will unduly impact lower-income animal owners who “wish to contest the charges, but cannot afford the thousands of dollars in care and legal costs.” The club believes the bill violates the innocent until proven guilty maxim and could “cause an owner to permanently lose their animals if they miss one payment for care during the trial – even if charges are dropped or they are found not guilty.”

“The bill’s current language would allow for subjective interpretations of ambiguous situations to be treated as animal cruelty,” said Bob Rilling-Smith, a legislative analyst and outreach coordinator for AKC in an email. “This could include accusations of animal cruelty in the case of an owner attempting to care for a sick or elderly dog simply because the animal doesn’t look healthy.

Bill co-sponsor Republican state Rep. Carolyn Eslick of Sultan, Washington, supports strengthening protections for abused or neglected animals, a spokesperson for Eslick said in an email.

“But she also recognizes the importance of protecting the rights of the accused,” the statement said, and she plans to work with Goodman to address concerns raised by Sportsmen’s Alliance and others.

Goodman doesn’t believe the bill’s language needs clarifying and argues that civil forfeiture and seizure is well-established law.

“Overall, we don’t have the resources to enforce the animal cruelty laws sufficiently,” he said. “So the cases that come before the courts and the animals that are seized are the most egregious cases.”

The bill was crafted with the input of Pasado’s Safe Haven, a West Side animal sanctuary that has advocated for animal right’s bills in the past. Kim Koon, director of animal cruelty investigations for Pasado’s addressed the committee Wednesday, telling them that the proposed legislation would address a serious hole in the state’s animal cruelty and neglect laws.

“Under the current statute, animals who have suffered violent abuse, starvation and severe neglect sit in shelters for months on end waiting for their cases for the trial,” she said.

In 2020, 27 emaciated sheep were seized in Snohomish County. Those sheep were kept at Pasado’s as evidence in the ongoing legal proceedings for a year, ultimately costing the shelter $127,000, she said.