MD: A local humane society can seize animals in distress by delegation under state statute but only with exigency

A local humane society can seize animals in distress by delegation under state statute but only with exigency and only to the extent necessary to protect the animal. Rohrer v. Humane Soc’y of Washington Cty., 2017 Md. LEXIS 456 (June 27, 2017):

This case concerns the application of a State statute designed to remedy mistreatment of animals. In particular, we must construe Maryland Code, Criminal Law Article (“CR”), §10-615 which, among other things, authorizes an officer of a humane society to take possession of an animal from its owner “if necessary to protect the animal from cruelty” or “if necessary for the health of the animal.” Pondering laws that regulate the treatment of animals by people can provoke profound questions concerning the nature of human beings and their relationship to the natural world. A statute that deputizes an officer of a private entity to seize an animal belonging to another without prior judicial process and that provides only cryptic direction concerning the consequences of that seizure raises serious constitutional questions under the Fourth Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and their analogs in the Maryland Constitution.

We will not resolve those questions. Our task is more mundane. We must determine whether the circumstances under which a humane society exercised its authority under CR §10-615 to take possession of a farmer’s animals based on allegations of animal cruelty were consistent with that statute in two respects. We must also decide how that action may have affected the farmer’s ownership interest in the animals. The resolution of those issues in this case turns in part on the existence of a parallel criminal prosecution and the execution of a criminal search and seizure warrant involving the same animals.

. . .

We hold that, while the statute does not provide for seizure of an animal that is already in State custody in connection with a criminal proceeding, an officer of a humane society may notify the animal’s owner or custodian of an intent to take possession of the animal upon the animal’s release from State custody in the criminal case. In addition, seizure of an animal under the statute need not occur contemporaneously with the alleged mistreatment of the animal. However, the temporal remoteness of the alleged mistreatment is relevant to whether it is “necessary to protect the animal from cruelty” or “necessary for the health of the animal” for the humane society to take — and retain — possession of the animal. The statute gives a humane society the authority to temporarily possess an animal when those standards are satisfied, although that authority expires when the necessity ends. The statute does not purport to determine ownership of the animal.

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