This is the fourth article of a five-part series on animal cruelty laws in Minnesota. This article will discuss the State v. Gerard decision and examine the impact the decision may have on the “unjustifiable” standard.
While the court of appeals has rendered several decisions giving the lower courts insight on how “unjustifiable” standard in Minnesota Statutes section 343.20, subd. 3 should be applied, State v. Gerard is important because it is the first published opinion on the issue of what constitutes an “unjustifiable” act under Minnesota’s animal cruelty statute. Given this, Gerard provides a starting point for creating a useable test for determining whether a defendant’s actions were unjustified.
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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a clear standard regarding what constitutes an “unjustifiable” action but has discussed the standard in a number of unpublished cases.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.
CONTENT: In this second article of a five-part series on animal cruelty, we will look at the history of animal cruelty laws in Minnesota.
Animal cruelty laws did not exist at common law; rather, such laws are statutory in nature. See Stephens v. State, 65 Miss. 329, 331, 3 So. 458, 459 (1888) (“The common law recognized no rights in such animals, and punished no cruelty to them, except in so far as it affected the rights of individuals to such property.”); see also Corwin R. Kruse, Baby Steps: Minnesota Raises Certain Forms of Animal Cruelty to Felony Status, 28 WM. MITCHELL L. REV. 1649, 1653 (2002) (noting that animal cruelty was not a crime at common law). In Minnesota, the first statute that prohibited torture or cruelty to animals was enacted while the state was still a territory. Rev. Stat., ch. 107, 18 (1851). It provided that a person who “cruelly beat or tortured any horse, ox, or other animal, whether belonging to himself or another, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail, not more than thirty days, or by fine not exceeding fifty dollars, nor less than five dollars.” Id.
In 1854, this language was modified to read: “every person who shall willfully and maliciously kill, maim or disfigure any horses, cattle or other beasts of another person . . . shall be punished.” Rev. Stat., ch. 101, 39 (1854); see also U.S. v. Gideon, 1 Minn. 292, 296 (1856) (quoting relevant language). Interestingly, this change restricted the crime only to those individuals who harmed an animal belonging to another, which essentially created a safe haven for an animal owner. Another notable change made by the legislature was the substitution of the word “animal” for “beast” because this further restricted the scope of the statute. A “beast” is arguably a subset of animals and therefore the change is a restriction on the statute’s applicability. Compare Oxford Dictionary (defining beast as “an animal, especially a large or dangerous four-footed one.”) with Merriam Webster Dictionary (defining “animal” as “a living thing that is not a human being or plant.”). Nevertheless, despite these changes, the 1854 law still appeared to apply broadly to “any horse, cattle or other beasts of another person” that was “kill[ed], maim[ed] or disfigure[ed].” However, the Minnesota Supreme Court took a much narrower view of the statute’s application in U.S. v. Gideon, 1 Minn. 292 (1856).
In U.S. v. Gideon, the defendant, Peter Gideon, was convicted of “willfully and maliciously killing” a dog by shooting it with a pistol. Upon review of the conviction, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted the animal cruelty statute and determined that dogs were not included within the term “beasts” and thus fell outside the scope of the statute. Gideon, 1 Minn. at 296. The court stated that the only animals protected by the statute were those who had “intrinsic value,” such as oxen, swine, and cows. Moreover, it held that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that it could convict the defendant based on his malice toward the dog or its owner. The court held it was necessary to prove malice toward the owner of the animal––malice toward the animal alone was insufficient. Therefore, in the early days, the animal cruelty laws were narrowly defined and applied, and only those individuals who harmed another person’s animal with “intrinsic value” and with malice toward the owner, could be convicted.
Minnesota’s Anti-Cruelty Standard
In 1905, the Minnesota Legislature redrafted the animal cruelty law to resemble its current form. The 1905 Act began with several important definitions, which are still in effect today. Minnesota Statutes section 343.20 provides that an animal is “every living creature except members of the human race.” Minn. Stat. § 343.20, subds. 2; see also Rev. Laws ch. 102, 5152 (1905) (similarly defining animal). In addition, it defines cruelty or torture as “every act, omission, or neglect which causes unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.” Minn. Stat. § 343.20, subds. 3 (emphasis added); see also Rev. Laws ch. 102, 5152 (1905) (similarly defining these terms). These definitions must be read in tandem with Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, which makes it a crime to:
[O]verdrive, overload, torture, cruelly beat, neglect, or unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate, or kill any animal, or cruelly work any animal when it is unfit for labor, whether it belongs to that person or to another person. . . .[;] deprive any animal over which the person has charge or control of necessary food, water, or shelter . . . .[; or] willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal or animals, or any act tending to produce cruelty to animals.
From the early twentieth century forward, the animal cruelty provisions largely persisted in the same form until 2001, when Minnesota Statute section 343.21 was amended to increase the penalties for certain types of animal abuse. The penalty increases in severity based on whether the defendant: (1) has been previously convicted of torture or cruelty; (2) violates the cruelty or torture provisions and causes substantially bodily harm, great bodily harm, or death to a companion animal; or (3) harms a service animal without justification so that it is unable to perform its duties, causes substantial or great bodily harm to the animal, or causes the animal’s death. In addition, there are specific elevated penalties for defendants who violate the cruelty or torture provisions and cause substantial bodily harm, great bodily harm, or death to a companion animal with the intention of threatening, intimidating, or terrorizing another person. Every violation of the animal cruelty statute except those specifically set out above remains a misdemeanor offense. Therefore, because the elevated penalties attach only to violations of the torture and cruelty provisions, the definition of “cruelty or torture” set out in Minnesota Statutes section 343.20, subdivision 3, becomes central to the prosecution of these crimes.
Upcoming articles in the series will discuss the Gerard v. State decision and examine the impact the decision may have on the “unjustifiable” standard. And finally, I will examine how the “unjustifiable” standard could be improved.
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. we understand this balance and are happy to answer your questions.
The law in Minnesota regarding dog bites is favorable to dog bite victims. The law covers bites and other injuries, incorporates an expansive definition of “owner,” including someone who merely harbors or keeps the dog, and it is not subject to the comparative negligence defense. Related to the concept of dog bites, is that of animal cruelty, and you may be surprised about what the court has to say in reference to when you may (and may not) take action to protect yourself, your family, and your property from a trespassing animal. This is part one of a five-part series. In this five-part blog series, I will explore what is considered a “justifiable action” under the Minnesota animal cruelty statute.
At first blush, the difference between a justifiable and unjustifiable action may appear to be clear-cut. We hear many heinous stories of animal abuse and torture in the paper, on news programs, or social media. For example, no prudent defendant would argue that the actions were legally justifiable in a situation where a man broke into an ex-girlfriend’s home, stabbed her cat in the throat, and left the body for the former lover to discover after she returned home. These actions would clearly not be justified; however, in some cases the line between what is justifiable and what is unjustifiable is blurry.