California Penal Code 597 details the state’s laws regarding animal abuse. Under the law, crimes involving severe mistreatment of animals can result in either a misdemeanor or felony charge. A person may end up facing up to three years in prison for violations of this statute.
Some animal cruelty charges are severe, and anyone facing allegations of such crimes should contact an attorney to learn their rights and the best way to protect themselves.
What Animals Does the Law Protect?
California’s 597 PC includes protections for:
The language is broad and aimed at protecting all animals from abuse at the hands of a human. Whether the abused animal is a dog or a squirrel, a person who abuses it may face severe consequences.
What Behavior Constitutes Abuse?
The statute prohibits the malicious and intentional mutilation, maiming, wounding, killing, or torturing of an animal. Some of the prohibited behaviors are clear examples of abuse, such as when a person strikes, kicks, or otherwise attacks an animal. Maiming an animal, permanently disfiguring the creature, or removing a limb would be other blatant forms of illegal abuse.
Other prohibited behaviors are less obvious forms of abuse or neglect. Leaving a pet animal outside in extreme heat for extended periods or neglecting to feed or provide water for dogs or cats would violate the law.
Defending Against Animal Abuse in California
There are many potential defenses available for individuals facing allegations of animal abuse. The best defense will depend heavily on the facts of each case. Below are several common defenses used in animal abuse cases:
Self-Defense: If the accused injured or killed a dog that attacked them, a good defense may be that they were protecting themselves. The law permits people to defend themselves when facing imminent attacks, whether the aggressor is a human or an animal. The defense will work when the animal that the person injured or killed attacked the accused, another person, or another animal.
It is important to note that courts will not consider self-defense valid if the accused used more force than necessary. If the attacking animal retreats, the accused cannot legally pursue and hunt down that animal.
Lack of Means: If the accused neglected an animal only because they lacked the financial means to care for their pet, this will serve as a valid defense against abuse allegations. Defendants might wish to use this defense if they did not adequately care for an animal only because they suffered a health condition, job loss, or severe injury that prevented them from caring for their pet.
Not Responsible for an Animal: Neglecting to care for an animal is only a violation of the law in cases where the defendant is responsible for the animal’s care. If the animal belongs to another individual, then even if the defendant shares a residence with the owner, they can argue that the animal is not theirs, meaning they are not liable for the neglect.
As with any crime, if the allegations are incorrect because the defendant is not the person who abused the animal or because of another mistake of fact, arguing mistaken identity or that no abuse occurred could be the best course of action.
Misdemeanor Versus Felony Animal Abuse Charges
Prosecutors may choose to pursue misdemeanor or felony charges related to animal abuse. The charges will vary depending on the severity of the alleged crime. For the accused, the classification matters for several fundamental reasons.
If the court convicts the accused of a misdemeanor, the sentencing terms will not include jail time of greater than one year. Additionally, it might be possible to have the crime expunged from the person’s record if the law classifies the offense as a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors also do not cause the loss of a person’s right to purchase, possess, or own a gun.
Conversely, a felony conviction for animal cruelty may include a prison sentence of three years. The defendant will not be able to expunge that crime from their permanent record, meaning that others will be able to search and learn about that conviction. Felony offenses also lead to the loss of the right to possess or own a firearm. Animal abuse cases that rise to the level of an aggravated offense can have additional consequences for non-citizens. Courts can deport these individuals and prevent their future admission into the country.
The Consequences of a Criminal Conviction for Animal Cruelty
In misdemeanor cases, a person convicted of animal abuse will face a maximum sentence of one year in jail. The court may also fine the person up to $20,000.
In felony animal abuse cases, the court can sentence a person to a maximum of three years in prison. A felony offense also comes with a $20,000 potential fine.
Federal Laws Also Prohibit Cruelty to Animals
Several federal laws prohibit abusing animals. The Humane Slaughter Act and the “28 Hour Law” both apply to animals that people slaughter for food. These regulations state that when slaughtering an animal, you must stun that animal first to minimize pain. Additionally, those transporting animals for slaughter must stop and provide food, water, and exercise to those animals at least every 28 hours. Both laws include exceptions, including for turkeys and chickens, to which the law does not apply.
Federal laws regulate zoos, laboratories, and commercial breeders under The Animal Welfare Act. The law creates minimum standards for the transportation, treatment, handling, and care of these animals.
In 2019, Congress enacted The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (“PACT”), which applies to all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. PACT makes the intentional burning, crushing, suffocating, drowning, impaling, or severely harming any animals illegal.
Specific Animal Cruelty Laws in California
The laws listed below prohibit other specific forms of animal abuse within California:
The penalties vary for these crimes as well and can lead to years in prison. Dogfighting, for example, can come with a three-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine.
It is crucial for anyone accused of committing a crime related to animal abuse to speak to an experienced California criminal defense attorney to discuss the best options for defending against those allegations.