Every state has some version of Megan’s Law on the books. The original Megan’s Law was enacted 20 years ago in New Jersey and was named for a young girl who was kidnapped, raped, and killed by a neighbor who had a record of prior sex offenses. Other states quickly followed suit.
The laws differ in detail, but generally they require a person convicted of sex crimes to register with a state agency. Information available to the public might include the offender’s name; photograph; address; the date of conviction, incarceration, and release; and the nature of the offense. Various websites even make it possible to enter an address and have a map pop up with the names and locations of registered sex offenders living in the neighborhood.
Legislative attempts to create similar registries for convicted animal abusers fared poorly, at least until last year, when the nation’s first such registry was established in Suffolk County, New York. Based on the Megan’s Law model, the Suffolk County registry is an online database that includes the name (plus aliases), address, and photograph of adults convicted of animal cruelty. Offender information will remain online for five years and fines and/or jail time are possible punishments for failure to register.
Success in Suffolk County may be spurring renewed interest in statewide abuser registries.
The National Anti-Vivisection Society does an excellent job of tracking animal welfare legislation and is a good source for information. The organization recently reported on animal abuser registry bills pending in Connecticut (HB 5013, HB 5185, and HB 5362), New Jersey (S 2018/A 3082 and A 2917/S 2049), New York (AB 1506 and SB 2015/AB 299), South Carolina (S 226), Virginia ( HB 1930), and Washington (SB 5144).
The various registry bills are similar in intent but they differ in detail. Some provide full public access to the database, others restrict the information to law enforcement officials, humane societies, animal shelters, and veterinarians. Some attempt to distinguish between one-time offenders and potential repeat offenders, others simply lump together everyone convicted of felony animal abuse. Most simply make the information available, while a bill in Connecticut would require pet store owners, private breeders, and animal shelters to check the registry before allowing a person to purchase or adopt an animal.
Supporting animal abuser registration might seem like an obvious choice, but there are some areas of concern, including species discrimination.
Legislation should not distinguish between species, either through specific statutory language or indirectly as a result of interaction with other state laws. A registry law that references "pets," for example, might not require registration for a person convicted of abusing a horse or a cow or a stray of any kind. Even a registry requirement that appears to be all-inclusive can be problematic if state animal welfare laws distinguish between species.
Consider a state like Kentucky, where most animal abuse or neglect is punished as a misdemeanor, if it is punished at all. One of the few animal abuse felonies in the state involves the torture of a dog or cat. If a registry law requires registration only for persons convicted of felony animal abuse, many convicted abusers (and no one who abuses or neglects a horse in Kentucky) would not be required to register.
I also have a problem with registration laws because I think they amount to punishment after a person has served his or her time for the offense. The United States Supreme Court does not agree with me on that one, and has upheld the constitutionality of sex offender registry laws. There is no reason to think that courts will be any more sympathetic to challenges brought against animal abuser registry laws.
Is a registration requirement for convicted animal abusers a good thing?