Swanson: Overton, K9 Mitchell Examples Of Why Animal Abuse Laws Should Be More Severe

MAYVILLE – Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson said the animal abuse case against Jamestown man Robert Overton, Jr. is just one example of why the animal abuse laws should be amended.

“Quite frankly, coming off the heels of the Overton case, with the dog killing that we had in Jamestown, I think that (amending laws) is long overdue,” Swanson said during a one-on-one interview Friday with WNYNewsNow. “The state laws that surround the death and killing of a domestic animal probably need to be amended. It’s time to change those laws, to make them a little more severe than they are.”

“I think it surprised a lot of people in learning that the outcome of that case only resulted in a year in County Jail and, under that law, a pretty severe penalty, but that law is particularly weak.”

Overton plead guilty in January to a charge of aggravated animal cruelty, a Class E felony that falls under New York State’s Markets and Agricultural Law. Under the law, the maximum possible sentence is two years in county jail. Overton was committed to a sentence of one year, minus credit for time served, in Chautauqua County Jail.

“It probably needs to be treated, or brought in line, with E felonies and D felonies in this state,” Swanson said. A Class E felony involves charges such as criminally negligent homicide, which carries a punishment of up to 1 1/3-4 years, indeterminate, in state prison.

Chautauqua County’s top prosecutor said that the failed passing of Mitchell’s Law also serves as a disappointment for him. Mitchell’s Law, which would make injuring a police animal while in the line of duty a felony, was proposed by New York State Senator Catharine Young in 2017. The law is named after Jamestown Police Department K-9 Mitchell, who was seriously injured while trying to apprehend Keith Robbins, the man who eventually plead guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the 2016 shooting death of wife, Shari.

According to the New York State Senate website, the Senate passed the law in both 2017 and 2018. However, the Assembly failed to pass the law both times.

“My hope is that (an animal abuse subcommittee) will take that and champion that law, again, in hopes of passing a law protecting our police service dogs,” Swanson stated.

Swanson, who sits on the New York State Association of District Attorney’s Board of Directors, said a recommendation was made during a recent Association conference in New York City to create a subcommittee of prosecutors who would examine the current animal abuse laws. The subcommittee was created by a unanimous vote from all 62 members of the Association.

“I’m interested to see what they come up with after they start holding meetings,” Swanson said. “I’m optimistic. It was encouraging to know that everyone in the association kind of shares the same concerns that they’re seeing more animal abuse, and they want to treat it more severely.”

The District Attorney said that he is aware that other prosecutors have spoken with members of the State Legislature.

“I don’t think it would be much of a surprise if our association comes forward with some proposed legislation on how to make those (animal abuse) cases more severe,” Swanson said. “I think the natural and easy fix would be to move domestic animal killings and abuse out of the Agricultural and Market Law and into the Penal Law with a new Penal Law section that encompasses domestic animals and, in Mitchell’s Law case, ideally, police animals as well.”

“My hope is that something gets done. I don’t think anybody is asking that people be sent to prison for longer than they are for causing the death of a human, given the facts and circumstances, but what I do suspect is that when people learn that killing a domestic animal only carries a maximum sentence of two years in county jail, I think for many people, including myself, think that punishment is not as high or severe as it should be.”

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