Over strenuous objections from the defense, a 61-year-old Northfield woman accused of drowning and freezing dogs will go to trial this week.
Last April, Dayna Kristine Bell, a licensed breeder from the Sciota Township, was charged with 16 counts of animal cruelty for allegedly killing dogs at her kennel.
Jury selection was scheduled to begin on Monday, though Defense Attorney Robert D. Miller has argued that animal cruelty statutes are written too vaguely to pass constitutional muster.
The statute, MN S 343.21, states "No person shall willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal or animals, or any act tending to produce cruelty to animals." Cruelty is defined as "every act, omission, or neglect which causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering or death." The law applies to pets or companion animals, which are described as "any animal owned, possessed by, cared for or controlled by a person for the present of future enjoyment of that person or another as a pet or companion, or any stray pet or stray companion animal."
According to Miller, this language is not explicit enough to give fair warning to the average citizen.
"Should the farmer, with four barn cats, be charged with ten felonies if he places an unwanted (and unaffordable) litter of ten kittens in a weighted sack and tosses them into the river?" Miller wrote in a motion to dismiss the case. "While crude and immoral the subject statute does not adequately tell her that she couldn't do so legally."
In the absence of specific guidance from the law, Miller turned to Webster's Dictionary, which defines "cruelty" as "animal-like or savage cruelty that is altogether unfeeling…the complete absence of those qualities expected of a civilized human being."
The common definition fails to draw a reasonably clear line between lawful and unlawful conduct, Miller argued, which leaves a breeder or farmer to guess as to what is and isn't considered cruel before the law.
He further argued that the case should be dismissed for lack of probable cause, since the dogs in question were not "companion animals."
"The statute wasn't designed to pertain to dog breeders, rather, it was enacted to protect animals which are truly pets in the various households in Minnesota," Miller wrote, again turning to Webster's for aid. "A pet has been defined as 'an animal that is tamed or domesticated and kept as a companion or treated with fondness.' There is no special bond or enjoyment since they are to be sold at the earliest opportunity."
On Jan. 14 Judge Tim Wermager slapped down the motion, ruling that the the statute is not unconstitutionally vague and that it did indeed apply to Bell. The common definition of cruelty is sufficient, he wrote, and ordinary people would have no trouble understanding what conduct is prohibited by the law.
"The court finds the defendant's actions to be completely absent of those qualities expected of a civilized human being. The alleged actions are unfeeling, savage, outrageous, extreme, atrocious and go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be utterly intolerable in a civilized community" Wermager wrote. "Indeed it strains credulity to believe any human being would believe that the defendant's alleged acts were somehow 'justifiable.'"
If convicted, each charge against Bell carries a maximum of two years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.