For as long as she lived, my mother had an insatiable need to poke her nose into other people’s business. Snooping was her inalienable right, and everyone in the community was fair game. She wore out two of the old rotary dial telephones and obliterated the numbers on key pads of the new models by jabbing at the push buttons with the eraser end of a pencil.
Wanting to know everything about everybody and having a legal right to that knowledge are two vastly different things. I’d like to know whether my clients pay their bills on time, or whether the person driving in the lane next to me on the interstate has a record of DUI offenses, or whether my new neighbors have noisy parties that last all night. I can track down some of that information myself, but the government generally has no obligation to tell me.
There are a few exceptions. Every state, for example, has a law establishing a mandatory registry for anyone convicted of sexual abuse. The laws typically require registration with local authorities at the time a person is released from prison. Information about offenders is then made available to the public, often on the Internet.
A new twist is mandatory registration for persons convicted of animal abuse. No state requires this yet, but legislatures in California (Senate Bill 1277) and Louisiana (House Bill 201) are considering the establishment of animal abuse registries. The proposed laws require registration only for persons convicted of serious animal abuse: a felony in California, several specified offenses in Louisiana. The California bill requires authorities to make offender information available to the public on the Internet, by telephone, or by written request. The Louisiana bill would establish a central registry for offender information, but does not specify how the information would be disseminated.
The California law would establish an administrative procedure for offenders to have their names removed from the registry upon a showing of rehabilitation. In Louisiana, offenders’ names would be removed from the registry after 10 years, assuming there were no subsequent convictions.
Animal abuser registries are supported by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and there are valid reasons for their creation. There also are serious shortcomings.
Anyone who sells, leases, or gives away a horse or other animal clearly has an interest in knowing whether a potential client has a substantiated record of animal abuse. Those people should be avoided like the plague when considering a new home for an animal. Also, there is substantial evidence that people who abuse animals often escalate their behavior to humans and a registry of animal abusers might help prevent future problems.
One serious concern is that very few animal abuse cases actually result in felony convictions. This is due to a combination of weak animal protection statutes and unenthusiastic enforcement of existing laws. As a result, only a small percentage of animal abusers actually would be required to register under the proposed legislation in California and Louisiana. Most convicted animal abusers would stay under the radar.
More problematic, in my opinion, is that required registration amounts to an unconstitutional state-imposed punishment that extends beyond the original sentence imposed by a court. When the U.S. Supreme Court considered this question regarding mandatory registration for sex offenders a few years ago, however, the justices found no problem at all. Providing truthful information, the Court said, is a public safety issue that does not amount to punishment. On that basis, it is reasonable to think the Court would approve animal abuse registries as well.
Hester Prynne would be disappointed.