Diana Urban
Diana Urban ()

If state Rep. Diane Urban’s bill is approved, abused animals in the state will have access to some unlikely allies: Connecticut law students.

The so-called Desmond’s Law would allow students at the University of Connecticut School of Law, and potentially other law schools in the state, to act as courtroom advocates in cases of animal neglect, abuse and cruelty. They would apparently function in a similar manner as guardians ad litem who represent the best interest of children involved in custody battles.

The bill would create a “win-win” situation, said Jessica Rubin, an animal law professor at UConn. “Law students would benefit from having an opportunity for experiential learning by being advocates in the court and the courts would be provided with volunteer assistance,” Rubin said. “So that courts that are lacking in a resource would have those additional resources.”

The way the statute is written, a judge would be able to select a volunteer, which can either be an interested law student or a pro bono attorney, to act as an advocate on behalf of the animals. The list of volunteers would be maintained by the state Department of Agriculture.

“We think the most important things that have to occur, especially in this short session, are to ensure better enforcement of the cruelty laws, by having an advocate in the courtroom who can advocate for the interest of the animal or the interest of justice in the event the animal is deceased,” Debora Bresch, a senior state legislative director for the ASPCA animal rights group told a Connecticut television station.

Desmond’s Law was introduced two years ago but has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote. However, there has already been a hearing on the proposal in February before the Judiciary Committee, giving supporters a feeling that this year could be different.

The measure is named after a dog named Desmond in New Haven was beaten, strangled, and killed by its adoptive owner. The owner was given accelerated rehabilitation instead of prison time and the charges were wiped from his record. Advocates hope that given extra resources, prosecutors would be more aggressive in such cases.

“This does solve the problem that we always have, which is animals can’t talk for us,” said Linda Meyer, a professor at Quinnipiac School of Law.

From 2002 to 2012, about 84 percent of animal cruelty charges were either dismissed or state’s attorneys chose to not pursue them, according to data from the state’s Office of Legislative Research. During that same period, only 16 percent of the cases yielded a guilty conviction.

It’s not clear why such cases aren’t pursued. “It’s hard to know what the underlying problem is that we’re trying to fix,” Meyer said. “If the problem is that the prosecutors are too busy, then this could be helpful.”

Urban and Rubin worked together on the legislation. Rubin said there are UConn law students who are involved in the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at the school who are “very passionate” about the subject. If they got involved in an animal abuse case, a professor would oversee their work. Students at Quinnipiac and Yale law schools would also be welcomed as volunteers.

Urban, a North Stonington Democrat whose photo on her legislative Web page shows her holding a dog, said she has talked with the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and the takeaway message was that prosecutors want an additional person to help on cases. Animal cruelty cases come before prosecutors after an investigation is completed by a police department or local animal control officer and an arrest is made. Oftentimes, a veterinarian is involved at some point in the investigation.

“An extra person can go out and make sure that [the prosecutor] has all their facts and testimony as to what happened to the animal,” Urban said. “That really frees up the prosecutors to take these cases to court and get the attention they need to get.”

But animal cruelty cases can be complicated, Meyer said. “A lot of animal neglect happens because someone is a hoarder or there are substance abuse issues and they’re not paying attention to even their own lives in general,” she said. In those instances, a conviction with a prison sentence isn’t the right solution. “Until we know why these cases ended up with the decisions they did, it’s going to be hard to know what the goal is.”

Meyer said it’s important to note the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence. The Department of Correction and the Department of Agriculture share data about animal abuse and domestic abuse cases and it has been found that there is a strong correlation between the two. All the more reason to seek convictions instead of tossing cases, Urban said. She notes that many of the school shooters in the past 10 years were found to have abused animals before moving to injuring and killing humans. Urban’s office says her bill would allow for further investigation of that link.

Since the state started collecting data in 2003, the number of animal cruelty cases has remained the same, hovering between 350 to 400 a year. What’s more, the number of cases dismissed or not prosecuted has remained stagnant. “We understand that this is an act of violence and you would think those numbers would move,” Urban said. “But you don’t see a change in the slope of that curve. We’ve gone into this zone where we’re comfortable.”

If passed, the law would be the first of its kind in the country, Urban said. Rhode Island enacted similar legislation, but it enlists animal rights activists and not law students to act as courtroom animal advocates. Urban said that while animal advocacy groups are important, courtroom matters should be handled by those educated about the law. •