Is the Massachusetts Animal Cruelty Statute Constitutional?

In an opinion published earlier this week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court rejected a defendant’s argument that the Massachusetts law prohibiting cruelty to animals is unconstitutional.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Daly

In 2010, the defendant was living in a Braintree duplex with his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter named Jamie.  The girlfriend’s 14-year-old Chihuahua also lived in the home.  The dog had a history of biting people and had previously bitten Jamie on the face, resulting in a cut that required stitches.  One afternoon, the defendant and his girlfriend were in the kitchen and Jamie was alone with the dog in the living room.  Jamie pulled at the dog’s leash and the dog bit her on the hand, causing a small cut.  The defendant became enraged, grabbed the dog’s leash, and threw the dog out of an open sliding door and onto a deck.  The dog fell 12 feet from the deck onto the ground and died.  The police became involved and an officer interviewed the defendant, who allegedly admitted he had “lost it” after seeing the dog bite his daughter.  The defendant was charged with violating the Massachusetts animal cruelty statute.  A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to jail.

The defendant’s primary appellate argument was the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.  Therefore, according to the defendant, he did not receive adequate notice of the conduct that was prohibited by the law.  The statute punishes anyone who “cruelly beats, mutilates or kills an animal.”  The Appeals Court dismissed the defendant’s argument that the language of the statute is unclear.  The Court said the adverb “cruelly” applies to the verb “kills,” which means a defendant can be punished for killing an animal only if he does so in a cruel manner (which makes sense, as it is permissible for a veterinarian to put a suffering animal to sleep).  Applying the statute to the facts of this case, the Court had no problem concluding the defendant’s conduct in throwing a small dog onto a deck which resulted in the dog’s fall to its death satisfied the elements of the animal cruelty law.

The Court also disagreed with the defendant’s argument that he was not guilty because his killing of the dog was necessary to defend his daughter.  In Massachusetts, any person can use reasonable force to defend another person from physical harm.  However, the force cannot be excessive.  The evidence in this case established that the defendant grabbed the dog’s leash and had complete control of the dog before flinging it outside.  The Court concluded that once the defendant had control of the dog and the dog could no longer harm the defendant’s daughter, he was prohibited from inflicting further pain on the animal by throwing it outside.

The animal cruelty statute is dangerous because it punishes a wide range of conduct.  While this case was relatively clear cut, whether a defendant’s conduct qualifies as “cruel” under the statute is often questionable.  If you are charged with animal cruelty, it is important that you immediately speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney.