By Emily Le Coz and Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – An attempt to make animal cruelty a felony in Mississippi has won the support of those closest to its helpless victims.
But not all animal lovers agree.
Senate Bill 2623 passed the full Senate in a 47-1 vote last week. If it becomes law, it’d make it a felony to maliciously “torture, mutilate, maim, burn, starve, disfigure or kill any domesticated dog or cat.” And it’d be punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Mississippi is one of only four states without a felony animal-cruelty law, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota are the others.
Offenders now face misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
The problem with weaker laws, said Tupelo-Lee Humane Society Director Debbie Hood, is that animal advocates and law-enforcement officials have little means to punish offenders. And Hood said she gets five to 10 abuse reports daily, some of which deal with multiple animals.
“Why even bother to prosecute if they’re not going to be punished for a crime? I think that’s what’s wrong with Mississippi,” Hood said. “These puppy mill breeders, there’s nothing we can do. In Mississippi, they would get a $50 fine, and they would have been told, ‘You can’t do that.’”
The bill now heads to the House.
State Rep. Steve Holland said he feels the bill will go through a lot of scrutiny in the House but thinks it will pass in some form. For Holland, making animal cruelty a felony is an issue for him.
“I don’t believe in mistreating any animals and have taken in quite a few strays over the years,” said Holland. “But we need to be careful of making felons out of people. And that’s my issue. I’d like to see it be a misdemeanor with an increased fine instead.”
Lee County Justice Court Judge Rickey Thompson deals with crime against animals often in his court. Because of the minimal consequences, Thompson said people often ignore animal cruelty laws. If the new law passes, Thompson said the judicial system will finally have a real weapon to fight against such crimes.
“This is a positive move in the right direction,” said Thompson. “We need to make people realize if they knowingly and maliciously harm an animal they will be severely punished and not just slapped on the wrist.”
But the Mississippi Canine Coalition and other animal groups oppose SB 2623, calling it vague and unconstitutional. While their members say they support efforts to crack down on animal cruelty, they dislike the current proposal.
“What good is it if it’s going to be thrown out of court because it’s unconstitutional?” said Tupelo resident Tere Woody, a member of the American Kennel Club and an opponent of the bill.
At issue is a section of the current law dealing with animal seizure in cases of abuse. Woody and others say that unless a new bill changes that section, it’s basically worthless.
“The seizure portion of the law has never been challenged but we feel it’s unconstitutional,” said Linda Chance, legislative chair of the Mississippi Canine Coalition. “This allows people’s animals, their property, to be taken by the government before they get a trial unless they can pay a bond. That’s not right. It’s taking money from poor people.”
Attempts at crafting a constitutionally fit animal-cruelty bill have been in the works for years, Woody added, but never make it through the Legislature.
In any case, she said, SB 2623 clearly isn’t the way to proceed.
But Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said he supports the bill and wants it to pass.
“We deal with animal cruelty a lot more than you’d think about, but we’re not able to penalize it much,” Johnson said. “This law will put a little more bite in it. This law will make you think twice before you do something.”