In upholding a woman’s animal cruelty conviction for starving her dog to death, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled it was proper for the trial judge to prohibit her from owning any pets as a condition of her probation. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Waller.
In January of 2013, the defendant brought her pet dog, a miniature dachshund named Arthur, to a veterinary hospital in Woburn. Arthur was nonresponsive and was immediately examined in the emergency department. A vet determined that Arthur was the victim of prolonged malnutrition. In addition to appearing emaciated, the dog was suffering from sores and scabs on one side of his body, and much of his hair had been rubbed away. Such injuries result when an animal is lying down and not moving for extended periods of time. Blood tests revealed Arthur was dehydrated and his vital signs suggested he was close to death. He was cold to the touch and unable to react to stimuli. He was also exhibiting symptoms associated with brain damage. The medical staff at the hospital performed CPR on Arthur for about 20 minutes before concluding the dog could not be saved. The vet euthanized the dog and the defendant was charged with violating the Massachusetts animal cruelty statute. She was found guilty by a district court judge (after waiving her right to a jury trial).
On appeal, the defendant asserted the district court judge had made a number of errors at her trial that compelled the reversal of her conviction. The defendant primarily complained that the testimony of the treating vet and a second doctor who had performed a necropsy (an animal autopsy) constituted inappropriate opinion testimony. The treating vet testified it typically takes many weeks for an animal to become emaciated, and it was therefore impossible for Arthur to become deathly skinny in only a week’s time (as suggested by the defendant). The doctor who performed the necropsy opined that her examination did not reveal any disease that might have caused Arthur to lose weight in such dramatic fashion and his death was the result of malnourishment (which was caused by not being fed). The Appeals Court ruled that the expert opinion testimony provided by the two doctors was properly admitted at the defendant’s trial. The testimony was based on the witnesses’ personal observations of the dog and supported by valid scientific principles. Therefore, the judge appropriately considered and relied on the experts’ testimony to convict the defendant.
The defendant also argued on appeal that two of her probationary conditions were unlawful. The trial judge imposed a suspended jail sentence on the defendant and ordered her to serve five years of probation. While on probation, the defendant is prohibited from owning a pet or animal of any kind. The defendant argued this probationary condition was invalid because it interfered with her constitutional right to own property. The Court disagreed, pointing out that constitutional rights are allowed to be restricted or eliminated when a defendant is placed on probation (for example, a convicted felon cannot possess a firearm, despite the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms). The Court did agree, however, that the trial judge’s order that the defendant be subject to random inspections by the probation department or the MSPCA violated the Massachusetts Constitution. Even probationers have an expectation of privacy that cannot be violated by the government without justification. In order to search a probationer’s home, the government must have reasonable suspicion that the probationer is violating a condition of probation and must first obtain a search warrant.