The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday affirmed the animal cruelty conviction of a man who shot his neighbor’s dog in Hatfield. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Szewczyk.
The defendant’s new neighbor moved into her home in 2013 with her partner and two children. They were planning to work as farmers and on their land they had 10 goats, 25 chickens, and a sheepdog. Within the first two months of moving into the new house, the dog got loose three times and made her way to the defendant’s home which was two houses away. The first two times, the defendant angrily marched the dog back to her home and yelled at his neighbor for letting the dog get loose. The third time, the defendant threatened to “shoot [the dog] dead” if he saw her loose again. A couple of months later, the dog chewed through her leash. Her owner found the dog standing still in front of the defendant’s house. It was odd for the dog to be still, as she belonged to a breed of dog that was trained to guard livestock and constantly move around. It appeared the dog had injured her hind leg, and upon closer examination, her owner located a small hole in the leg that was bleeding. As a result of the injury, the dog could not walk. The following day, the dog visited a veterinarian who took an X-ray and located a pellet lodged deep in her muscle, close to the bone. The dog was unable to have surgery to remove the pellet, because the veterinarian determined surgery might result in nerve damage. The dog was in pain for the following week and now walks with a permanent limp.
The defendant admitted to shooting the dog. He said after finding the dog in his yard for the fourth time, he shot her with a pellet gun. On that occasion, he did not call the town’s dog officer as he had in the past. He testified he hit the dog exactly where he was aiming and he was attempting to “sting” her and scare her from coming onto his property. He conceded the dog was not in any way aggressive, but said he needed to keep the dog away from his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. The defendant also complained about the dog going to the bathroom on his property. The defendant was found guilty of animal cruelty and he appealed.
The defendant argued he was justified in shooting the dog and his conduct did not satisfy the statute’s definition of “cruelty.” The Appeals Court disagreed. The Court said the law does not require the defendant to specifically intend to cause harm to an animal. Instead, the question is whether the defendant’s conduct is objectively unnecessarily cruel. In this case, the Court found it was unnecessarily and unjustifiably cruel for the defendant to shoot the animal, causing her to be in pain for several days and unable to walk for a week. The Court pointed out that the defendant had legal alternatives to shooting the dog (such as continuing to call the town’s dog officer). Accordingly, he had properly been convicted of animal cruelty.
This case is an excellent example of the danger of “self-help” in the law. In neighbor disputes like this, it is never a good idea to try to fix a problem without law enforcement authorities. While the defendant might have been justifiably frustrated that the town’s dog officer and the dog’s owner were unable to control the dog, that did not give him the legal right to take the matter into his own hands and shoot the animal.