Ohio lawmakers just passed a law that would make it a fifth-degree felony to knowingly harm a pet by inflicting pain or depriving it of food, water, or shelter – for a first offense.
On Wednesday, House Bill 60 passed through the state Senate unanimously with a 33-0 vote, and the House approved of new amendments by a 92-1 vote.
Sponsored by Reps. Dave Hall (R-Millersburg) and Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland), the bill was nicknamed Goddard’s Law after Dick Goddard, a Cleveland weatherman who has advocated for strengthening the penalties against animal abusers for years.
Now it’s heading to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s desk.
Once signed into law, HB 60 will make it illegal for anyone to “knowingly torture, torment, needlessly mutilate or maim, cruelly beat, poison, needlessly kill, or commit an act of cruelty against a companion animal.”
The move was a long time coming, according to one of the sponsors.
“It was a minor misdemeanor before. A lot of times it was a slap on the wrist,” Hall said in an interview with Yahoo News. “So we felt that we needed to put teeth into the law in Ohio.”
Under Ohio law, a fifth-degree felony is punishable by six to twelve months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Goddard’s Law is indicative of a larger shift within national law enforcement toward protecting animals from abuse. In January, the FBI started tracking animal cruelty as a separate offense in its National Incident-Based Reporting System.
Lora Dunn, a staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program, explains that all 50 states, including Ohio, already have felony penalties available for animal cruelty.
“However, whether cruelty is punishable as a misdemeanor or felony can depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of the offense, whether it was the perpetrator’s first or subsequent offense, whether a child was present, how many animal victims were involved, and more,” Dunn said via email. “Currently, under Ohio’s cruelty law [Ohio Rev. Code § 959.131(B)], knowing cruelty to a companion animal is only a misdemeanor on first offense, and a fifth-degree felony for any subsequent offense.”
Goddard’s Law makes knowingly causing serious physical harm to an animal a felony offense the very first time.
“This is a significant change that recognizes the serious danger of perpetrators who subject animal victims to prolonged suffering, be it by active physical abuse or leaving an animal to die slowly by starvation,” Dunn said.
With Goddard’s Law, the Ohio legislators also strengthened the penalties for assaulting a police dog or horse. This addition was inspired by the killing of Canton, Ohio police K-9 dog Jethro in January.
“Some representatives and senators had existing bills out there [inspired by Jethro] but didn’t have time to go through the process of committee hearings, so we had members ask me and Patton if we’d be willing to add that into Goddard’s Law,” Hall said. “We felt that it was the right thing to do.”
Amy Beichler, director of the Public Animal Welfare Society (PAWS Ohio), who has been advocating for Goddard’s Law for years, said first-time offenders have been getting free passes for too long.
She said Ohio was one of only a few states to not have a felony provision for first offenses — no matter how deplorable it was. In one instance, she recalled, someone was only charged with a misdemeanor after throwing a puppy off a cliff twice.
“An animal abuser could grab a dog, shoot it, and put it on fire in the middle of the street in front of a lot of witnesses, and if that individual had not ever been charged with animal cruelty before, the most that that person would get is misdemeanor 1,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.
The next step, she said, is for animal rights advocates to educate the public. She hopes that the threat of a felony will deter people from intentionally harming animals.
“If you choose to harm companion animals, you may be choosing to be a felon for the rest of your life.”