A few weeks ago, I commented on Lope Gonzalez, a Florida Thoroughbred breeder who lost the privilege of registering horses with The Jockey Club after his conviction for animal neglect in Florida. The lifetime ban on registering horses imposed by The Jockey Club, which could effectively end Gonzalez’s livelihood as a Thoroughbred breeder, was far more severe than the slap on the wrist handed down by Marion County Judge Steven G. Rogers. Gonzalez was fined $50 for each of 33 counts of misdemeanor animal neglect and his jail sentence was probated for a year.
Lost in the discussion of the criminal case against Gonzalez was any mention of the horses. What happened to them?
In August 2009, 32 Thoroughbreds and one Quarter Horse were seized from Gonzalez’s farm near Ocala, Florida, and placed in the care of Marion County Animal Services. The horses reportedly had a variety of health problems and many were severely malnourished. While the criminal case against Gonzalez was winding its way through court, Marion County initiated a civil action to recover the costs of caring for the horses.
On September 11, 2009, County Court Judge Sarah Ritterhoff Williams entered an Order in the civil case. Her findings of fact included specific determinations that the horses seized from Gonzalez were "neglected and cruelly treated," that Gonzalez was "unable, and unfit to have custody of, and provide adequately for said animals," and that Marion County already had spent almost $9,000 caring for the animals. Judge Williams’s finding that the horses had been neglected had no impact on the criminal case against Gonzalez. The standard of proof in a civil case is not as high as the proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" required for a criminal conviction. Remember O.J. Simpsom, who lost a civil lawsuit for wrongful death after being acquitted in his murder trial.
Judge Williams ordered that Gonzalez turn over all registration papers and other documentation for the horses to Marion County. This would facilitate later sales or adoptions. Gonzalez also was ordered to repay the expenses already incurred by the county to care for the animals, plus an ongoing fee of an additional $12/day for each horse.
So far, so good. But then things took an odd turn.
Despite her findings that the seized horses had been neglected and that Gonzalez was unfit to have custody of the animals, Judge Williams ordered that the horses be returned to him if he paid Marion County for their care within 10 days. Further complicating matters, Judge Williams next restricted the number of horses that Gonzalez could buy, acquire, own, or possess to 10 animals. The judge also ordered Gonzalez to provide a detailed plan of care for the animals seized from his farm, and that the plan satisfy "minimum care standards" established by Marion County Animal Services.
Twenty-three of the seized horses eventually were put up for adoption by Marion County, for a fee of $75 each. The other 10 presumably were returned to Gonzalez pursuant to Judge Williams’s order. A condition of Gonzalez’s probation in his criminal case was that his ownership of horses in the future be consistent with the civil court order. There was no time limit on the ownership restriction, although Gonzalez can petition the court for modification in the future.
These proceedings raise a bothersome question: how can a judge order that horses be returned to an owner, when that owner was found by the same judge to be "unable, and unfit" to have custody of the animals? An "unfit" owner does not magically become a "fit" owner simply through payment of a fine. It is a puzzle, one that strengthens the proposition that meaningful forfeiture provisions should be a part of every state’s animal abuse and neglect laws.