Animal-abuser registry stalls before county lawmakers

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UTICA — A local law establishing an online registry of convicted animal abusers in Oneida County is being held up at least a month over concerns by at least two lawmakers that it might harm farmers.

Board of Legislators Chairman Gerald Fiorini ordered a resolution establishing the law withheld from a vote Wednesday until questions raised at the Ways and Means Committee earlier in the day can be answered.

Fiorini told reporters after the board’s regular May meeting he expects the resolution will pass next month after questions are answered.

County Executive Anthony Picente, District Attorney Scott McNamara and Sheriff Rob Maciol had endorsed the registry a month ago, saying it adds a deterrence to animal abuse, which they believe is often a precursor to crimes against people.

The measure would establish an website similar to that of sex offenders, with offender’s names, residence, birth dates, photo and a description of the offense and the sentence. Animal shelters and pet sellers would be able to check it to help reduce the chances of putting animals into the hands of known abusers.

Failure to register or owning an animal after an animal-abuse conviction could result in a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $5,000 or a year in jail. So could knowingly selling or adopting an animal to an abuse offender.

Exceptions would be made for service animals, as defined by state and federal law, or someone who uses one and lives at the same address as an offender.

A current or previously registered abuser convicted of a subsequent abuse would be put on the registry for life following a second conviction, including any in a county that maintains a registry.

The draft defines animal abuse as a violation of several provisions of the state agriculture and markets law, such as animal fighting, overdriving, abandonment, poisoning, and failure to provide proper food and water to impounded animals. It also encompasses certain offenses in the penal law, including sexual misconduct with an animal harming a service or police animal.

At Wednesday’s Ways and Means Committee meeting, board minority leader George Joseph, Dist. 10 of Kirkland, Rome and Westmoreland, raised objections.

He said it may not have been properly vetted to guard against harming farmers directly or if someone associated with a particular operation is convicted of abuse and placed on the registry. And the district attorney’s prosecutors could feel pressure to bring a case not necessarily warranted, he said.

“There’s discretion in the DA. If the public opinion rises to a level to pressure the DA to prosecute something beyond that he will,” Joseph told the committee.

Joseph said the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opposes registries as ineffective and potentially counterproductive.

He was joined by legislator Keith Scheibel, who is not on the Ways and Means Committee but attended the committee meeting. Scheibel said he worried the law would leave too much to interpretation and be used by organizations critical of livestock farming. Horse pulls could be endangered, for example, he said.

“We have a very significant population that make their living using horsepower. So if all of a sudden I complain that the neighbor that has an animal out in 10-degree weather pulling a manure spreader what’s the difference between that and some of those other cruelties?”

Joseph’s motion to table the resolution failed; no one else supported it.

Maciol linked the measure to a case last week in which an Oneida County man was charged with beating a horse to death. A registry can help prevent a person who would do such a thing from having animals again, the sheriff said.

He also said it will not be a burden to manage for his department, and that deputies and other law enforcement officers regularly explain to citizens the differences in what’s acceptable between farms and pets or service animals.

Picente said he was disappointed but will try to address lawmakers’ questions, though it seems clear to him it would protect normal farm work.

“We’re talking about severe abuse, intentional abuse,” Picente said.

“There are obviously things on farm that are not applicable because it’s a farm ... This is animal abuser registry for those convicted of animal abuse.”

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