By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
January 26, 2014
A young mixed pug named Pup was shot once through the heart with a BB rifle in the backyard of his Dundalk home and died on the back porch as his owner's daughter held him in a towel.
The incident in November 2012 led to the arrest of Lex L. Shifflett, who was sentenced to 18 months in the Baltimore County Detention Center. A Circuit Court judge, citing public safety concerns, imposed six times the jail time recommended by Maryland sentencing guidelines for a felony count of aggravated animal cruelty.
The case was one of the first to be handled by the Baltimore County state's attorney's animal abuse unit, a stepped-up effort to investigate and prosecute crimes against animals. In particular, it works to develop cases that carry more severe penalties under Maryland's first felony animal cruelty law, which went into effect a decade ago.
The county unit — similar to efforts in Frederick County and Baltimore City — represents a shift toward more aggressive prosecution of animal abuse and cruelty across the country, spurred by highly publicized cases and mounting evidence tying violence against animals to violence against people.
As of late 2013, Baltimore County prosecutors had charged 15 adults with crimes against animals for the year — including four with felonies. That's more than double the typical number of cases in previous years, said Assistant State's Attorney Adam Lippe, who is leading the effort. Six defendants pleaded guilty, including Shifflett, and nine cases were still open as of late last month.
The city prosecutor also is bringing more cases. Last year, the city charged 35 people, nearly double the previous year, including six felonies, said spokesman Mark Cheshire.
Lippe and paralegal April Doherty, whom Lippe credits with sparking the idea for the unit, began working on a new approach in 2012, without new staff or any budget for the unit.
"It's about bringing the right resources and the right attention" to bear on animal cases, Lippe said. "The coordination between animal control and the Police Department was not clear. ... We had to make that bridge."
Police are not usually trained in laws on animal crimes, so if they show up at a scene of possible abuse, they might not know what evidence to look for, Lippe said. Officers at animal control — now called Baltimore County Animal Services — know about animals, but they're not trained to gather and hold evidence.
The new effort included a conference at Stevenson University, with another planned for this year to help police and prosecutors learn the best practices for animal abuse investigations.
Animal services officers also have designated police officers they can contact in each of Baltimore County's 10 precincts, making it easier to quickly get police involved, said Tom Scollins, assistant chief of animal services. If officers find possible evidence of a crime, Scollins said, "We need someone to run with it."
That's Lippe, who takes a strict view of crimes against animals.
"I've got very little sympathy for the defendants," said Lippe. "I look at animal abuse like child abuse. There's really not much difference in my mind."
Maryland law treated all crimes against animals as misdemeanors until 2002, when the first felony statute went into effect. Aggravated cruelty to animals carries a potential sentence of up to three years and involves deliberate intent to harm an animal.
Despite the law change, many animal abuse cases are still pursued as misdemeanors, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.
That means such cases tend to stay in District Court, even if more serious charges could have been brought to Circuit Court, where most felonies are handled.
The result, Lippe said, is that prosecutors often don't have the time to develop a strong case because of the heavier caseload in District Court. In Baltimore County, he has alerted police and animal service that he wants to hear about potential incidents of animal abuse early, allowing time to develop evidence.
Anne Benaroya, founder and director of the Maryland Animal Law Center in Bowie, said one difficulty in prosecuting crimes against animals is that the charges are often dropped in plea agreements when defendants face both animal abuse and drug charges. That's frequently the case in dog-fighting cases, she said.
"Defense counsel is going to do the best he can to put all the crimes in one basket and leverage them against each other: 'We'll give you the drug dealing if you let go of the dog fighting,' " said Benaroya, a former public defender.
Still, prosecutors are taking animal abuse more seriously, said Sherry Ramsey, director of Animal Cruelty Prosecutions for the Humane Society of the United States. She said big-city prosecutors from Philadelphia to Los Angeles have established units focusing on animal crimes.
Ramsey said the change is being driven at least in part by recognition that crimes against animals are often linked to domestic violence, child abuse and other crimes against people.
Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said that's one reason his office has been focusing more attention on animal crimes.
"The data show that juveniles who commit abuse of animals do have a propensity to commit more serious crimes and violent crimes as they get older," said Bernstein, who added that if early signs of violent tendencies are dealt with more seriously early on, perhaps "we can nip it in the bud."
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