Local lawmakers find flaws in bill

State House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill at the end of January allowing magisterial district judges to impose an animal care fee on suspects facing cruelty charges. It’s an option, the bill’s sponsors said, to keep that expense from falling on nonprofit shelters with little money to spare.

While 163 voted yes on House Bill 82, local and area representatives were among the 34 voting no.

“We all want to see our animals protected, but there are too many questions with this bill,” state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg.

For instance, Stern said, it contains no language allowing someone cleared of criminal charges to recover money paid.

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, identified the same concern.

“Just because you’re suspected of something doesn’t mean you’re guilty,” McGinnis said. “This bill seems to fall short on the legal side of due process.”

The bill has been forwarded to the Senate where state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr, R-Blair, expects the judiciary committee will work on the language. Eichelberger, who is on the judiciary committee, said he noticed the names of the local House members among those casting no votes.

“I think their concerns will be remedied,” Eichelberger said.

Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler County, said he introduced the legislation because the cost of care for seized animals is most often falling on shelters run by private, nonprofit organizations that rely on donations to operate.

As presented, the bill permits the filing of a petition in district court, which, if granted, will require someone accused of animal cruelty to pay as much as $15 per day, plus veterinary care, while their seized animals are sheltered and their court case proceeds.

McGinnis said he understands the desire to help the sheltering agencies.

“If they have to take care of your animals, I understand the desire to recover the cost,” McGinnis said. “But first, let’s get a conviction.”

The American Kennel Club, which is objecting to the bill, points out that the risk is more than monetary.

“If the person accused of animal abuse fails to pay the amount mandated by the court at any time during the trial, they will permanently forfeit all ownership rights for their animals – even if they are eventually found not guilty, or charges are dismissed,” the club concluded.

Eichelberger said there is interest in addressing this language, and if addressed satisfactorily, he would support the legislation.

“You just can’t assume everybody is guilty when they haven’t been given due process,” Eichelberger said.

Meanwhile, the cost of caring for animals seized because of cruelty or neglect adds up, Central Pennsylvania Humane Society Police Officer Paul Gottshall said.

“We’ve had animals here for months with little money coming in to pay for their care,” he said.

When pursuing cases in court, the humane society will make an effort to seek restitution for the money spent on care, but that often depends on the person’s ability to pay, Executive Director Mary Anslinger said.

Altoona Police Department Dog Law Officer Mike Daversa said he’s not sure that the proposed bill will make a difference in the end. While some animal owners will fight to get their animals back, he said others won’t have the money to pay that kind of fee.

“Even now, we try to get them to sign their animals over us,” Daversa said.

For those who decline, the humane society houses the locally seized animals and cares for them while the owner’s case goes through the court system. Until the case is resolved, the animals cannot be adopted, fostered or euthanized.

“They have to be kept here, and they have to be cared for,” Gottshall said.

Besides Stern and McGinnis, state representatives Mike Fleck of Huntingdon County, Dick Hess of Bedford County and Gary Haluska of Cambria County voted against the proposed bill.

Haluska said he based his no vote on a request from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“The farming community is afraid that this is going to lead to other things,” he said.

In other states, animal seizure laws have been linked not only to domestic animals but also to farm animals and their welfare. While House Bill 82 excluded “activity undertaken in normal agricultural operations,” Stern agreed with Haluska about the Farm Bureau’s concern.

“They see this legislation as a harbinger of other things,” Stern said.

Altoona Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.