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crimes against animals

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Crimes Against Animals

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In the United States, crimes against animals can result in significant legal penalties, including fines, imprisonment, and restrictions on future animal ownership. According to CNN, animal cruelty is now considered a Group A felony, tracked and reported alongside crimes like homicide, arson, and assault. With penalties this severe, it's crucial for defendants to have access to legal resources and support. 

This page provides the following:

  • An overview of common crimes against animals

  • The burden of proof for prosecution and defense for each offense

  • A list of legal resources available to defendants in animal cruelty cases

These resources can provide defendants with legal guidance, support services, expert witnesses, and advocacy efforts to help them navigate the legal system and achieve the best possible outcome in their case.

Animal Cruelty

Animal cruelty involves intentionally or knowingly causing physical harm or death to an animal. It also includes neglecting an animal’s basic needs, such as providing food, water, shelter, and veterinary care. 

The exact definition of animal cruelty varies by jurisdiction, but it generally covers the following behaviors:

  • Beating, kicking, or hitting an animal

  • Burning or scalding an animal

  • Poisoning an animal

  • Killing an animal for no reason or reasons other than euthanasia

Burden of Proof for Defense

In an animal cruelty case, the defense may attempt to prove that the defendant is not guilty by presenting evidence challenging the prosecution's case. For example, the defense might build its strategy on lack of intent, self-defense, or lawful activity. 

For lack of intent defense, the defense may argue that the defendant did not mean to cause harm to the animal and that the injuries or death were accidental or the result of circumstances beyond their control.

If the defense structures its argument around self-defense, it may argue that the defendant was defending themselves against an aggressive animal. 

Lastly, the defense may argue that the defendant’s actions were lawful and necessary, such as in cases of hunting or pest control.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally or recklessly harmed an animal or engaged in conduct that resulted in the animal’s suffering or death. 

In some cases, the prosecution may need to prove that the defendant acted with malice or cruelty towards the animal. Other times, the burden of proof may be lower and require that the defendant acted negligently or failed to provide adequate care for the animal. Ultimately, the specific burden of proof will depend on the particular animal cruelty law in the jurisdiction where the case is being heard.

Animal Abandonment

Animal abandonment refers to the act of intentionally leaving an animal in a situation where it is likely to suffer harm or death without providing for its basic needs or making arrangements for its care.

This can include leaving an animal alone and without food, water, or shelter for an extended period, as well as leaving an animal in a location exposed to dangerous conditions or predators. Some other examples of animal abandonment might include the following:

  • Moving and leaving the animal behind

  • Tying an animal to a post or a dense and abandoning it

  • Abandoning animals in rental properties

Burden of Proof for Defense

In an animal abandonment case, the defense may attempt to prove that the defendant is not guilty through lack of intent, lack of control, or justification. 

For lack of intent, the defense may argue that the defendant did not intend to abandon the animal but instead had to leave due to unforeseen circumstances, like a sudden illness or a family emergency. 

For lack of control, the defense may argue that the defendant did not have control over the situation that led to the abandonment, such as if the animal was left behind in a rental property by a previous tenant. 

Lastly, the defense may argue that the abandonment was justified if the animal was aggressive or was a danger to the defendant or others.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The burden of proof for the prosecution is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally or recklessly abandoned an animal in a way that put the animal at risk. The prosecution must provide evidence that shows the defendant intentionally left the animal in a situation where it could not care for itself, such as without access to food, water, or shelter. The prosecution must also prove that the defendant knew the risks of leaving the animal in that situation.

Animal Hoarding

Animal hoarding is a type of animal cruelty where an individual accumulates an excessive number of animals and fails to provide their basic needs, including adequate food, water, and medical care. 

Hoarders may keep animals in unsanitary conditions without proper ventilation and adequate space or shelter. This can lead to animal suffering and death due to disease, malnutrition, or injury.

Burden of Proof for Defense

The defense may attempt to prove that the defendant is not guilty through several strategies, including lack of intent, knowledge, or justification.

To prove lack of intent, the defense may argue that the defendant did not intend to hoard animals but instead had a compulsion or mental illness that led to the accumulation.

A lack of knowledge defense may argue that the defendant did not realize the extent of harm being caused to the animals and believed they were providing adequate care.

Lastly, the defense may argue that the hoarding was justified, such as if the animals were rescued from abusive or neglectful situations.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution may use various tactics and strategies to secure a conviction in an animal hoarding case, including witness testimony and physical evidence. For example, witnesses who can testify about the condition of the animals when they were discovered, and the circumstances surrounding the hoarding will benefit the prosecution, as well as physical evidence like photographs, videos, or veterinary records that demonstrate the harm suffered by the animals. 

The prosecution may also use expert testimony, evidence obtained from an investigation, or the defendant’s prior convictions to support the charges against the defendant.

Animal Fighting

Animal fighting, also known as blood sports, is a form of animal cruelty in which two or more animals are forced to fight each other for entertainment, gambling, or any additional illicit gain. This can include organized fights between dogs, roosters, bulls, or other animals, where they are pitted against each other in a battle to the death or until one animal is severely injured.

In a criminal context, animal fighting is considered a severe offense and is illegal in most countries, including the United States. In the U.S., engaging in, promoting, or attending an animal fight is a federal crime punishable by imprisonment and fines. Animal fighting is also considered a felony offense in many states, which carries harsher penalties, including longer prison sentences and higher fines.

Burden of Proof for Defense

While the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty, the defense may present evidence and arguments supporting the defendant's innocence. 

The defense may argue that the defendant was not aware that the animals were being used for fighting or that they had no involvement in the organization or promotion of the fight. However, if the prosecution cannot prove that the defendant knew about animal fighting, it can weaken the defendant's case.

In addition, the defense may present evidence that the defendant was elsewhere at the time of the animal fight, meaning that the defendant has an alibi or could not have participated due to a physical limitation.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution in an animal fighting case will attempt to prove the defendant’s guilt by presenting evidence that demonstrates the defendant knowingly engaged in animal fighting. The prosecution may offer a variety of evidence, including witness testimony, video evidence, or physical evidence. 

Some forms of evidence may be stronger than others. For example, the prosecution may call witnesses who can testify that they saw the defendant at an animal fight or heard the defendant talk about their involvement in animal fighting. In addition, the prosecution may also use video evidence, such as footage of the animal fight or surveillance footage showing the defendant’s involvement in the organization or promotion of the fight.

Wildlife Trafficking

Wildlife trafficking, also known as illegal wildlife trade, refers to the illicit trade or exchange of wild animals, animal parts, or products derived from wild animals for commercial or personal gain. Wildlife trafficking can involve any animal species, whether endangered or not, and can occur domestically and internationally. 

The trade is often driven by demand for products such as ivory, rhino horn, and exotic pets, which can fetch high prices on the black market. In addition, wildlife trafficking is a lucrative criminal enterprise, estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually. 

Burden of Proof for Defense

Some possible ways the defense may try to prove the defendant’s innocence in a wildlife trafficking case include lack of knowledge, lack of evidence, or the defendant’s alibi.

If a lack of knowledge defense is used, the defense may argue that the defendant did not have the knowledge that the animals or animal parts were being trafficked illegally. If the prosecution cannot prove that the defendant knew about the illegal nature of the activity, it can weaken the case against the defendant. 

If a lack of evidence strategy is used, the defense may argue that the prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt. This may involve challenging the credibility of the witnesses, the validity of the evidence collected, or any other potential weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. 

Lastly, the defense may present evidence that the defendant was elsewhere when the alleged illegal activity occurred or that the defendant had no involvement in the trafficking of the animals or animal parts.

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution may try to secure a guilty conviction by presenting evidence that the defendant had wildlife or wildlife products, such as animal parts, obtained illegally or without proper documentation. 

The prosecution may also present evidence that the defendant sold wildlife or wildlife products to others for commercial gain, demonstrating that the defendant engaged in the illegal trade. In addition, the prosecution may call witnesses, such as accomplices or co-conspirators, who can testify that the defendant knowingly participated in the illicit trafficking of wildlife. 

Poaching

Poaching is illegal hunting, killing, or capturing wildlife, often for commercial gain. Poaching is typically carried out by individuals who do not have the proper permits, licenses, or permissions to hunt or harvest the targeted species. Poaching is a serious crime that threatens the survival of many endangered and vulnerable species and can negatively impact ecosystems and local communities. 

Poaching may involve using prohibited weapons, such as firearms or snares, to capture or kill wildlife. Poachers may also use illegal methods, such as bait to attract animals or hunt during closed seasons or in protected areas. In addition, the poached animals may be used for their meat, hides, or other body parts, which can be sold on the black market for a profit. Some of the most commonly poached species include elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, and other large mammals, as well as birds, reptiles, and fish.

Burden of Proof for Defense

In a poaching case, the defense may attempt to prove the defendant’s innocence by arguing that the evidence presented by the prosecution is insufficient to prove that the defendant committed the crime. Some possible strategies that the defense may use to prove the defendant’s innocence include challenging the evidence, raising reasonable doubt by pointing out inconsistencies or gaps in the prosecution’s case, or questioning witness credibility. 

Burden of Proof for Prosecution

The prosecution will seek to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the poaching crime. The prosecution may use several strategies, including presenting physical evidence, calling witnesses, and establishing a motive to secure a guilty conviction. 

Of all of these, physical evidence is the most substantial piece of evidence. Physical evidence can include:

  • Animal remains

  • Illegal hunting gear or equipment

  • Other items that link the defendant to the crime

DNA analysis, forensic evidence, and ballistics reports can also be used to support the prosecution's case.

Legal Resources for Defendants

If you have been accused of an animal cruelty crime, it's essential to understand your legal rights and access resources to help you navigate the complex legal system. This list provides an overview of some legal resources available to defendants in animal cruelty cases, including organizations offering legal guidance, support services, and advocacy efforts. These resources can help you prepare for your defense, cope with the stress of your situation, and achieve a more favorable outcome in your case.

Animal Law Resource Center

The Animal Law Resource Center (ALRC) is a Chicago non-profit organization serving the entire United States. This organization provides free legal resources on animal-related issues, including animal cruelty laws, animal rights, and animal welfare. These resources can be helpful for defendants who are unfamiliar with animal law and want to learn more about their legal options. In addition, the ALRC also tracks legal cases related to animal law and provides updates on these cases. Defendants can use this information to stay informed about legal developments that may affect their case.

Animal Legal Defense Fund

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) offers legal assistance to individuals and organizations involved in animal protection cases, including defendants accused of animal cruelty. The organization can provide legal representation or refer defendants to attorneys who specialize in animal law. In addition, the ALDF provides various legal resources on animal-related issues, including animal cruelty laws, animal rights, and animal welfare. Defendants can use these resources to understand their legal options better and navigate the legal system. 

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) is a leading criminal justice advocacy organization that works to protect defendants' rights and improve the criminal justice system. This organization can provide referrals to criminal defense attorneys who have experience handling animal cruelty cases. This can be helpful for defendants who need legal representation but don't know where to turn. The NACDL also provides various legal resources to its members, including resources on animal cruelty laws and defenses. Defendants may be able to use these resources to understand their legal options better and prepare their defense.

Local Animal Welfare Organizations

Local animal welfare organizations may provide free or low-cost legal resources to help defendants better understand their legal options and prepare their defense. These resources may include information on animal cruelty laws, defense strategies, and referrals to attorneys who specialize in animal law. In addition, these organizations may offer support services to defendants and their families, including counseling, support groups, and assistance with finding housing or employment. These services can help defendants cope with the stress of their situation and address any practical issues that arise from their legal case.

To find your local animal welfare organization, search online or search the online database of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

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