Legislation classifying some animal cruelty crimes as federal felonies made headlines when it became law in November. Now some animal welfare advocates wonder exactly how the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act will affect anticruelty laws on a local level.
All 50 states have laws that classify animal cruelty crimes as felonies and misdemeanors that carry various penalties. However, those laws only allow authorities to enforce the anticruelty statutes within their own jurisdictions.
Introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in January by Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) and Ted Deutch (D-FL), the PACT Act amends federal criminal code to prohibit intentional animal cruelty acts when they occur during interstate commerce or on federal property. It also addresses sexual abuse of animals (bestiality).
The U.S. House passed the act on Oct. 22; the Senate passed its twin bill two weeks later; and on Nov. 25 President Donald J. Trump signed it into law.
“Passing the PACT Act sends a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Buchanan said.
Even so, some animal welfare advocates don’t believe the new law directly helps local prosecutors win animal cruelty cases. Instead, they say PACT’s local value lies in its potential to lend heft to prosecutors’ arguments for stricter local penalties.
“What the PACT Act does is give local jurisdictions—sheriff’s departments and prosecutors—another tool to bring cases,” said Jim Boller, executive director of Code 3 Associates, which trains law enforcement personnel, animal welfare investigators, veterinarians, and others to spot and respond to animal welfare cases.
Said Boller, state statutes dictate animal cruelty sentencing guidelines. As a result, some penalties are more lenient than others. The PACT Act helps local prosecutors by setting sentencing standards for animal cruelty crimes at up to seven years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
“States’ penalties can be more stringent but not less stringent than national law,” Boller said. “So if the maximum local penalty is two years in prison, prosecutors can argue that sentences cannot be any less than the federal guideline.”
Meanwhile, establishing sentencing guidelines also helps state lawmakers interested in revising local anticruelty laws.
“They help local legislators when they introduce measures that would beef up state laws,” Boller said.
Finally, PACT’s endorsements from the National Sheriff’s Association and the Fraternal Order of Police make animal cruelty crimes difficult for local law enforcement authorities to ignore.
“When it comes to enforcing the law, a deputy could go to the sheriff and say, ‘How can you not enforce local law when your association endorses PACT?’” Boller said.
But not all animal welfare advocates are convinced.
“I don’t see it having an immediate impact,” said Tawnee Preisner, president and founder of the Horse Plus Humane Society. “Animal cruelty crimes are directly related to everything from child abuse to senior abuse, and until law enforcement in local jurisdictions see that taking animal cruelty crimes seriously will help them tremendously, I don’t think we’re going to see a difference.”
Though its long-term impact remains to be seen, some animal welfare advocates are beginning to investigate how they might put the PACT Act to local use.
“In fact, I’ve already included a session about it in my classes,” Boller said.