Council to finalize animal law

Fairfield County Attorney Tommy Morgan (right) explains why the county cannot issue fines greater than $500 for violations of a new animal control ordinance that received second reading Monday night as Kathy Faulk with the Hoof and Paw Benevolent Society (left) looks on. | Michael Smith

WINNSBORO – It could cost up to $500 per violation in the enhanced animal control laws under consideration by Fairfield County Council.

Second reading of the draft ordinance passed unanimously last week.

While animal rights advocates applaud higher fines and greater guidance for law enforcement, they say the new law, which hasn’t been updated for 11 years, should go further.

Kathy Faulk, community outreach director for the Hoof and Paw Benevolent Society, which lobbied for more teeth in the law, commended the council supporting the ordinance.

“Updating this animal ordinance is, as you know, long overdue. We are hopeful and very excited that this ordinance may go through,” Faulk said. “It will help improve the quality of life of animals that are living in Fairfield County. It will help animal control and law enforcement do their jobs.”

The old law, last updated 11 years ago, included only rudimentary definitions of offenses. A version of the ordinance that passed Monday night included several additional provisions, including:

Mandatory reporting of any pet struck by a motor vehicle or bicycle

More detailed definitions of nuisance animals

Pets must be fed at least once a day and have potable water

Tethers must be at least 12 feet long and weigh no more than 15 percent of an animal’s body weight

On tethering, Faulk said she’d like to see it outlawed in its entirety. She also pressed for a $1,000 maximum fine for offenses.

“Our views on tethering remain unchanged,” she said. “We believe it is inhumane for animals to spend their lives on the end of a tether. However, we believe this ordinance provides some much needed guidelines and it’s a start.”

Faulk also called for the use of swing chains as tethers to be outlawed.

Councilman Dan Ruff also pressed for tougher penalties.

“I agree that we should look into raising the fine to $1,000,” he said.

Fairfield County Attorney Tommy Morgan said state law limits fines counties can charge for ordinance violations.

Morgan said the maximum fine allowed in magistrate court for ordinance violations is $500. He noted that state law contains tougher penalties for felony violations, with higher maximums on fines and offenders facing up to five years in prison.

County law enforcement officers have the option of charging felonies under the state’s “Ill Treatment of Animals” cruelty law. Those charges are heard in General Sessions Court.

“In a nutshell, the state restricts counties in what penalties we can put in animal control ordinances,” Council Chairman Billy Smith said.

Smith agreed that he, too, would like the proposed ordinance revised to outlaw swing chains. He also called upon the General Assembly to update its animal abuse laws.

“In my mind if there’s a state provision in law that we’ve addressed, it should be charged under the state provision because there are higher provisions,” Smith added. “We need to push state legislators to draft legislation to that effect.”

Ruff called upon the solicitor’s office to prosecute cases more vigorously.

“I guess we need to encourage our solicitor to prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law,” Ruff said.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Randy Newman couldn’t be reached for comment.

In previous comments, Newman has said it’s unrealistic to expect prison time in every animal abuse case, and that plea bargains are necessary.

“It is simply not possible to go to trial on every case or even a majority of cases,” Newman said in an email to The Voice. “This would cause an even greater delay in justice for victims of crimes, defendants and their families.”

Newman also criticized media coverage of how animal abuse cases are handled.

“You guys get an initial incident report and have the guy tried in the news and guilty before the case is even indicted,” Newman said. “This newspaper seems to be concerned with folks being sentenced to prison.”

A recent investigation by The Voice, which reviewed publicly available court records online, found that virtually none of the Fairfield County animal abuse cases prosecuted by the solicitor’s office resulted in a prison sentence.

“The likelihood of a person with little or no previous record going to prison is very slim,” Newman said.

Final reading of the county’s animal control ordinance is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10.