New Mexico's Pet Resource SPRING 2002


ANIMALS AND THE LAW

WHAT TO DO IF OFFICIALS DO NOT RESPOND TO YOUR COMPLAINT

It is not uncommon to try to get help from the local enforcement authorites in an animal abuse case and find they are not always receptive to your calls.

First - do not accept it when anyone tells you that they have to actually see the act happen or it cannot be prosecuted. This is simply NOT TRUE. Cases are prosecuted all the time using circumstantial evidence, meaning that various facts which can be proved can be enough to file charges. Murder cases have been tried even without a body being found. So you can proceed with a case with good facts even if no one actually saw the abuse happen.

Second. Every time you talk with someone write a letter and confirm the conversation. If you only keep notes, then it is still your version versus the other person's. They can say you never gave them information, or that what was said was different. When you write a letter, and send it to the person with whom you spoke, there is a record of what was said.

Always start with the person you contacted first, possibly an animal control officer, or a police officer. Get a copy of all reports that they file on the matter. If there are any inaccuracies in the report, send them a letter listing what they are. Wait a few days, then call to see if they are going forward with the case. If they do not pursue the case, you can pursue it by speaking with the next person in the chain of command. Following the chain of command is vitally important. Skipping right to the top could cause you problems as it is resented. But don't be afraid to go up the chain of command. Just remember that the next person who reviews the case may see it differently. And again, write those confirming letters. In a later column I will give you a sample letter.

A citizen can file a complaint with the police, but felony charges are brought by the local prosecution authorities. In New Mexico felonies are usually filed by either the local district attorney, or the Attorney General's Office. They bring charges based upon investigations by local law enforcement authorities.

In misdemeanors it is possible for a citizen to bring charges. But this should be approached with great caution. Prosecuting authorities have immunity from being charged with malicious prosecution but the average citizen has no such protection. That means that if a case is not proven, the person charged can bring a case for malicious prosecution against the person who filed the charges. They have to prove several things to win, but it can require the citizen to fight a case in court, possibly having to pay monetary damages.

If the case really matters to you, you can consult with an attorney on how best to proceed. Legal advice is always recommended if you decide to go forward on your own.

Theresa Welch is a former criminal prosecutor with 20 years' experience in animal cruelty cases in both New Mexico and California. She was instrumental in the passage of the felony cruelty bill passed by the legislature in 1991, and continues to advise people throughout the state on issues relating to animal cruelty.


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