PART FIVE—OPINION—Should “Unjustified” Be Defined in the Context of Minnesota Animal Cruelty Law?

A woman strokes a cats chin softly.

In the fifth and final article of this five-part series, I discuss the current state of animal cruelty laws in the state of Minnesota and how these laws could be improved to provide a clearer standard for the public. To learn about the history of animal cruelty laws and its evolution, click here to start from the beginning of the series.
The Gerard decision cemented the court’s prior opinions by holding in a published opinion that justification is a fact question within the providence of the jury. However, because all of the court’s prior decisions on justification have been unpublished, the court should have gone further and clarified the parameters of the justification standard in its decision. The adoption of a clear standard in published decision is necessary because it would have precedential value, and judges across Minnesota would be able to use a uniform standard to instruct jurors on how to apply justification to the facts of a case.

The Gerard decision solidified the jury’s central role in the decision-making process with regard to justification, and because of this, greater clarification is needed to help to eliminate whim and personal bias from the decision-making process. Because justification is a question of fact, the jury plays a crucial role when a defendant asserts that his actions were justified. This is potentially problematic and could yield inconsistent verdicts based upon the makeup of the jury. Within the state of Minnesota there are marked differences in the way people view companion animals and what constitutes a justified killing of an animal. For example, a farmer living in a rural community may have feral cats on his property to manage the mouse population, and he may not view these cats as companion animals. Under these circumstances, the farmer likely will not spay or neuter his cats, and when one of the cats becomes pregnant he may decide that it is necessary to “take care of” the pregnant cat in order to keep the population of cats on his farm under control. Another farmer from a rural community would likely view this as a “justified killing” while someone from an urban community, who keeps a cat in a small apartment and views it as a member of the family, would likely view the killing as unjustified. To promote fair results and consistency in verdicts, jurors should be given an objective, multi-factored test to apply when determining whether an act was justified.

Furthermore, from a legal perspective, clarification from the court (or the legislature) on what is considered “unjustified” is necessary because there has been at least two challenges to the constitutionality of the animal cruelty statute based on its vague or overbroad language. While these challengers were brushed aside in rather conclusory terms in unpublished decisions, the challenges show that practitioners and the public alike are having difficulty understanding the meaning of “unjustifiable” in connection with the statute. To remedy this, the legislature could simply define “unjustifiably” in Minnesota Statutes section 343.20 or the court could provide a definition in a published decision.

What is the Proper Standard?

The court of appeals, in reviewing the district court’s decisions on whether a defendant’s actions were unjustified, appears to consider the totality of the circumstances and put weight on the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions. Additionally, several patterns have emerged from the holdings and dicta of the cases discussed that can be used in creating a uniform standard. First, the absence of aggression by a companion animal supports a finding that the defendant acted unjustifiable in killing the animal. Second, the presence of a companion animal on the defendant’s property is not enough to justify the killing of that animal. Third, the companion animal defecating or causing minor damage to the property does not appear to justify killing that animal. Fourth, euthanizing an animal using excessive force is not a justified killing. Lastly, a defendant’s mental illness does not justify the severe neglect of a companion animal.

Taken together, this article proposes the creation of a two-pronged standard, which would incorporate a factored analysis based on the standard used for justification defenses to human crimes, e.g., self defense, defense of dwelling, and defense of others. A jury instruction explaining this standard could be written as follows:

A determination of whether an act, omission, or neglect was unjustifiable should be based upon reasonableness of the defendant’s actions in light of the totality of the circumstances. The following factors should be considered as a part of the analysis: (1) whether the defendant observed or reasonably anticipated aggressive behavior on the part of the animal; (2) whether the defendant provoked the animal; (3) whether the defendant believed in good faith that animal posed an imminent and substantial danger to the defendant’s property; and (4) whether the act, omission or neglect was necessary or unavoidable.

The current jury instructions for mistreatment of an animal do not define or otherwise explain what constitutes an “unjustifiable act, omission, or neglect” or a justification defense. Using the standard above, or one similar to it, would allow the jury to apply an objective standard to the facts of the case. In addition, it makes sense that the standard be taken or based upon the justification standards used for self defense, defense of dwelling, or defense of a third person because the animal cruelty statute already has borrowed from criminal law in this way by incorporating the definitions of substantial and great bodily harm verbatim from Minnesota Statutes section 609.02, subd. 7a, 9.

How should the Proposed Standard Be Adopted into Minnesota Jurisprudence?

The best way for the court to adopt a clear standard for what constitutes an “unjustifiable” act, omission, or neglect is for the legislature to amend the statute to include a definition of “unjustifiable.” This would be the cleanest way to adopt the standard into Minnesota law because animal cruelty law is a creature of statute. However, because of the history of controversy surrounding changes to the animal cruelty statute by various animal use organizations and lobbies, it is more likely that the courts would have to interpret the word “unjustifiable” to clarify the standard.

The adoption of a clear test for what constitutes an “unjustifiable” killing would not be a groundbreaking step for animal cruelty law compared to other measures, such as increasing and expanding the penalties for animal cruelty or creating mandatory reporting laws for veterinarians. However, the adoption of this rather innocuous standard, which simply seeks to clarify justification, would make the rules of prosecution clearer and it would represent a step forward in the fight for justice for animals because it would require the Minnesota appellate courts or legislature to again take notice of the problem of animal cruelty and take a proactive step to try to remedy it.

In State v. Gerard, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued its first published opinion focusing on the “unjustifiable” element of Minnesota’s animal cruelty statute, and although this was a first step toward clarifying the standard, the parameters of what constitutes an “unjustifiable” act under the statute still remain murky. It would benefit Minnesota jurisprudence to have further clarification on this standard through: (1) the Minnesota Legislature adding a definition of “unjustified” to Minnesota Statutes section 343.20; or (2) the adoption of a clear court-created standard, which could be used by the factfinder in rendering its decision in animal cruelty cases.

If you have been injured by an animal or are having problems with a pet in your neighborhood, call Meuser Law Office, P.A. to discuss your options. The protection of your property and family is important, but laws also serve as an important counter-balance in our society. At Meuser Law Office, P.A., our attorneys understand this balance and are happy to answer your questions relative to animal cruelty or personal injury law.