Part Three—A Look At The Case Law: What Is An “Unjustified” Action Under The Minnesota Animal Cruelty Statute?

A woman strokes a cats chin softly.

In this third article of a five-part series on animal cruelty, we will learn what is considered an “unjustified” action in Minnesota.
To prove animal torture or cruelty, the State must provide evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant’s act, omission or neglect caused or permitted unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death to an animal. Because the act, omission or neglect must have been “unjustifiable” many defendants argue as a defense that their act, which harmed or killed an animal, was justified. The court has not developed a clear standard regarding what constitutes an “unjustifiable” action but has discussed the standard in a number of unpublished cases.

First, in State v. Weber, the Minnesota Court of Appeals resolved the issue of whether the word “unjustified” was unconstitutionally vague. In this case, two neighboring families had a contentious relationship with one another. On the day of the incident, a dog belonging to the Dohrmann family crossed onto property belonging to the Weber family, and allegedly damaged insulation under a mobile home. When the dog approached Mr. Weber, he took out a gun and shot the dog. Mr. Weber’s primary defense was that his actions were justified because the Sheriff told him he could shoot the dog if it was on his property. The Sheriff denied this accusation in his testimony, and Mr. Weber was convicted with unjustly killing the dog under Minnesota Statutes section 343.21.

On review, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Weber’s conviction, stating that this was an unjustified killing and the factfinder has the role of determining the credibility of witnesses. In this case, the factfinder found the Sheriff’s testimony to be more credible––who stated he never would have advised Mr. Weber to shoot the dog. Moreover, Mr. Weber argued that because the legislature has not defined the term “unjustifiable,” it is unconstitutionally vague. The court rejected this argument and in conclusory terms held that the term “unjustifiable” is not unconstitutionally vague.

Second, in State v. Corcoran, the defendant shot and killed a neighbor family’s pet cat by shooting an arrow through its abdomen. The cat frequently entered the defendant’s yard and the defendant believed the cat was a stray. The defendant argued that the State could not prove that he intended to kill a pet, and therefore could not charge him with a felony under Minnesota Statutes section 343.21. The trial court held, and the court of appeals affirmed, that it is sufficient for the State to prove that the defendant intentionally shot a cat and the death of a pet resulted––the State does not have to prove that a defendant charged under Minnesota Statute section 343.21, subd. 9(d) knew that the animal being killed was a pet.

In addition, the dicta this case provides an important understanding of the court’s analysis of the “unjustifiable” standard. Dicta is a common legal term for opinions of a judge that fall outside the scope of the ruling in a specific case; dicta is not binding in subsequent cases as legal precedent but it still may be relied upon as persuasive authority. The defendant argued that the failure of the court to require that the accused know the targeted animal was a pet “would result in a person in rural Minnesota being charged with a felony if he or she kills a raccoon or a rabbit that happens to be a pet.” The court of appeals responded by referring to the safeguard contained in Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subdivision 1––that the killing must be unjustifiable. The court of appeals stated, “This qualification alleviates any concern that, for example, a lawful hunter who kills a raccoon or rabbit would be charged with a felony, as the conduct would presumably be justifiable.” The court’s focus on animals that are traditionally wild, i.e., raccoons and rabbits, suggests that it would likely be unjustifiable to shoot animals that are traditionally pets or companion animals under similar circumstances.

Third, in State v. Johnson, the defendant “euthanized” his family’s pet dog after it had an encounter with a porcupine and had a number of quills stuck in its legs, chin, nose, and mouth. The woman living with the defendant, M.G., suggested they take the dog to the veterinarian to get the quills pulled out, but the defendant refused, stating that they could not afford the veterinarian’s bill. After arguing, the defendant decided to euthanize the dog. Although she disagreed with the defendant’s decision, M.G. suggested that the defendant borrow a gun from the neighbor so the dog would not suffer. The defendant declined this suggestion, and instead grabbed a baseball bat and viciously beat, chased, and stabbed the dog until it died. The defendant was charged with felony cruelty to an animal and a jury convicted him.

On appeal, the defendant argued that because animals are chattel under the law, a pet owner can “necessarily” and “justifiably” put down “a pet for any reason so long as the owner does not cause the animal any unnecessary or unjustifiable pain and suffering in the process.” Specifically, the defendant argued that he was justified in killing the dog because “the family could not afford to expense of having a veterinarian treat the dog and killing the dog was necessary to put it ‘out of its misery.’” The court of appeals rejected this argument, finding there was sufficient evidence presented at the trial court level to support the defendant’s conviction for unjustifiably killing the dog. The court noted that there was evidence that: 1) the dog’s injuries were minor and treatable, and 2) there was a veterinarian’s office located only ten to fifteen minutes away. Furthermore, the court noted that even if killing the dog was justifiable, there was evidence that the defendant caused the dog unnecessary and unjustified pain by the manner in which he chose to kill the dog.

Finally, in State v. Crume, the defendant was the proprietor of Boardwalk Kennels, which housed a number of dogs. In August 1998, the defendant noticed that the dogs in one section of his kennel were refusing food, and later learned that the automatic watering system was not functioning properly. The defendant was suffering from depression during this time, and alleged that he learned of the water malfunction after it was too late to save all but two of the affected animals. During a search of the kennel by Clay County, it was determined that the dogs were severely neglected and received almost no care. The defendant was charged and convicted of animal torture and neglect pursuant to Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subd. 1 (1998).

On appeal, the issues addressed were evidentiary––whether photographs of the kennel and the dog carcasses were admissible under Rule 403 and whether the defendant’s mental health expert’s testimony should have been received by the trial court. The court of appeals, upheld the trial court’s discretionary decisions in allowing the admission of the photographs and not allowing a mental health professional to testify about the defendant’s depression. Furthermore, the court of appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subdivision 1 as vague and overboard, stating “a reasonable person of ordinary intelligence would understand that allowing dogs to go without water is prohibited by the statute because it is an act or omission that causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.” Because an ordinary person understands this, the defendant is charged with knowing that his conduct was prohibited by the statute.

Taken together, it appears the courts have been applying a reasonableness standard based on the totality of the circumstances in each case. However, the commonalities in the way the court addressed these cases does little good because each of the cases discussed above are unpublished decisions. This means that the decisions do not have any precedential value, and are not binding on district courts or subsequent court of appeals decisions.

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.