Impending Bill from Pennsylvania’s Gov. Rendell and Rep. Casorio is a Constitutional Slice and Dice

May 9, 2008

Gov. Rendell and Rep. Casorio’s as yet unnamed and unnumbered bill which claims to be a crack down on so-called “puppy mills” is in reality an 82-page wholesale slice and dice of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights and Civil Rights which will affect not only the estimated 2,600 licensed kennels in Pennsylvania, but anyone owning a dog in Pennsylvania or anyone owning a dog transported through the state.

Of particular concern is that this bill doesn’t just water down fundamental constitutional rights like the right to be secure in one’s home and one’s person, it negates them entirely. For instance, this bill would allow any dog warden in the state of Pennsylvania access to any dog owner’s home, land, buildings, papers, effects, and even their children not only without obtaining a warrant, but even without reasonable suspicion! As John Yates of the American Sporting Dog Alliance noted,

“The legislation gives the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement the power to revoke licenses, confiscate dogs and levy penalties of up to $1,000 a day, even for someone who is later found not guilty in a court of law. The Bureau also would be given the power to levy those penalties and confiscate dogs without even filing charges against a person who is accused of a violation” (emphasis mine).

Adjudicating individuals guilty before they’ve even had a fair trial, which is what assessing penalties and confiscation of property does, is how we treat enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay (and civil libertarians even dispute that we should be treating foreigners this way!), not how we treat American citizens with the unalienable right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and due process! What happened to the presumption of innocence? What happened to the burden of proof which must necessarily be the prosecution’s alone if we are to continue to make the claim that America is a Republic where supreme power rests in the body of citizens? Mr. Yates summed this stance up thusly: “This legislation…attempts to transform the Dog Law Bureau into the judge, jury, and hangman.”

Nor is an administrative hearing the equivalent of a proper trial in a proper court of law with a proper judge and/or jury. This is a complete usurpation of the 6th amendment particularly since if this bill passes it will be a law, and the alleged breaking of a law entitles the accused to a trial. Additionally, confiscation and what is tantamount to forced severance of ownership rights (or severance of property rights under duress) of the accused’s dogs and possibly other of the owner’s property without a warrant, without just compensation, without a court ruling (or even an administrative ruling) is a grievous violation of the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution. And yes, depriving the accused of his/her beloved dogs as a result of what could quite possibly be trumped up charges is cruel and unusual punishment. For instance, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1958 in the case of Trop v Dulles that society’s idea of “cruel and unusual punishments” change as society’s “evolving sense of decency” changes. Depriving American citizens of their pets — pets that are considered by many owners to be unto their children — especially as the result of an administrative decision made beyond the rule of law by an oligarchic bureaucracy with feigned authority is inexcusable. Dogs or other animals feared to be in immediate peril could be removed in a proper fashion via an injunction. There is no excuse for anything less.

Reasons for denial of kennel licensure are likewise unreasonable. Any and all felony convictions need not exclude individuals from holding kennel licenses unless the felony conviction has some credible bearing on an individual’s ability to effectively run a kennel and properly care for animals. For instance, it is reasonable to restrict those convicted of animal cruelty from obtaining a kennel license. But if, as Mr. Yates noted, a person was prior convicted of tax evasion should this exclude them from running a kennel? What has tax evasion got to do with one’s ability to properly care for animals? In this way it is intimated that anyone convicted of a felony, no matter what kind of felony it was, could potentially be an animal abuser or animal neglecter. This is a dangerous assumption and one that could lead to excessive governmental scrutinization of not only one’s fitness for owning dogs, but perhaps even one’s fitness for raising children. Where does it end?

Likewise there is no cause to restrict someone who absent-mindedly forgot to vaccinate his/her dog(s) a time or two from obtaining a kennel license. Who among us hasn’t been guilty of this or similar administrative oversights? Should an individual who forgot to vaccinate his/her dogs once be denied a kennel license the same as a person who has repeatedly and flagrantly disregarded the rabies law? Is this reasonable?

Similarly there is no rational basis for disallowing commercial kennel owners from obtaining state licenses allowing them to vaccinate against rabies particularly as there has been no problem with rabies in any kennel anywhere in the United States for 10 years (source:CDC). This provision could however quite possibly be cost-prohibitive, which in effect could prevent commercial breeders from breeding. Other versions of the Rendell/Casorio bill contained provisions which disallowed persons from private kennels from obtaining state licenses allowing them to vaccinate their dogs against rabies, and a newer version of the bill may contain this provision again.

Likewise there is no rational basis for denying kennel owners the right to euthanize a dog via legal methods. Such a provision could in fact prolong the suffering of a dog potentially for days or longer if a veterinarian is not immediately available, a real possibility in rural areas.

Worse, according to Yates,

“The legislation …would empower dog wardens to inspect every dog in Pennsylvania, as well as the home and property of the dog’s owner, at any time, for any reason and without…probable cause to suspect that the law has been violated. This applies to anyone who owns even one dog, and not just to kennels.”

As already stated, such a provision is an egregious violation of the 4th amendment. Perhaps you’ll understand better if a real-world situation is applied. Imagine there were a catastrophe in Pennsylvania on the level of a Hurricane Katrina. The dog warden could determine that due to circumstance thousands of individuals were not able to give their dogs adequate housing and care. Would the dogs be temporarily removed until such a time as the owner could demonstrate s/he could properly care for the dog(s)? In the case of Hurricane Katrina, which happened in 2005, thousands of individuals are still displaced. Could Pennsylvanians then expect to lose their dogs for years or indefinitely in the event of a natural or other disaster?

But that’s what licensing does. A license is a temporary, revocable permit issued by a governmental licensing agency that allows the holder to have something, or to do something that is otherwise illegal. Once that owner’s right to ownership has become a privilege instead of a right, which is a consequence of licensing, then that owner’s ownership can be negated at any time for any reason. By agreeing to license their dogs, owners grant the licensing agency absolute control over their animals. Agents can come onto owners’ real property, and remove their personal property (their dogs) without due process of law. Ostensibly cities, counties, or states which require licensing could even refuse to issue further licenses, and revoke the privilege of dog ownership altogether. In the case of a Hurricane Katrina-type situation in Pennsylvania, dog wardens could simply declare that it is in the best interests of the animals to sever owners’ ownership rights since it will be determined that owners, due to circumstance, can no longer properly care for their pets as proper ownership is defined by the state.

Other provisions of the Rendell/Casorio bill violate the rule of reason. For example, via the Rendell/Casorio bill, dog wardens would be authorized to demand an inspection of a kennel within 24 hours if a kennel owner is unavailable during an initial inspection attempt. If a second attempt is unsuccessful the bureau can revoke a kennel license and seize all but 25 of the dogs. Not only is this provision unreasonable for simple logical reasons like that the kennel owner may be in the hospital or out of town and unable to meet with the dog warden, but it leaves far too wide a berth for abuse and malicious prosecution. Another extreme provision of the Rendell/Casorio bill would require dealer licenses for individuals and groups transporting dogs through the state if they originate from out-of-state shelters/rescues while commercial transporters are exempt. How would this provision affect “puppy mills” as is the stated intent of the bill? Perhaps it would better suit Governor Rendell and Rep. Casorio if they could establish check points on all major entry and exit points to the state wherein officials could stop each vehicle for inspection and demand a driver’s “papers.”

Still other provisions are too vague allowing for open interpretations of the law. For instance, a provision of the bill requires that the temperatures of the dogs’ environment be kept warmer than 50 degrees and cooler than 85 degrees. Does this refer to a run or only an indoor kennel? Another provision states that weeds, waste, and junk cannot be allowed to accumulate on an owner’s property and that the premises must be kept clean and in good repair. Are we to assume this means the immediate grounds or an owner’s entire property including farms with hundreds of acres of land?

Finally, it is unreasonable and cost-prohibitive for a bill to require that kennel owners take their dogs to a veterinarian every year or that each kennel have a formal exercise plan approved or overseen by a veterinarian. These are nanny-state tactics meant to force good breeders out of breeding and which violate the most basic of the Constitution’s tenets: the right to life, liberty, and property.

Rep. Casorio recently stated in a memo to all Pennsylvania House members that “we need to ensure that our laws allow us to adequately address [the problem of “puppy mills”].” Rep. Casorio is mistaken. Elected officials must first and foremost ensure that all that they do, every bill that they propose and pass, upholds the Constitution. After all, it is their sworn duty to do so. This bill does anything but uphold the Constitution. Indeed, it makes a mockery of some of the most fundamental freedoms — privacy, due process, property rights, the right to a trial, the right to face one’s accusers — that Americans’ hold so dear.

Read the bill proposal here.

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