This is the fourth article of a five-part series on animal cruelty laws in Minnesota. This article will discuss the State v. Gerard decision and examine the impact the decision may have on the “unjustifiable” standard.
While the court of appeals has rendered several decisions giving the lower courts insight on how “unjustifiable” standard in Minnesota Statutes section 343.20, subd. 3 should be applied, State v. Gerard is important because it is the first published opinion on the issue of what constitutes an “unjustifiable” act under Minnesota’s animal cruelty statute. Given this, Gerard provides a starting point for creating a useable test for determining whether a defendant’s actions were unjustified.
Facts and Procedure
On June 25, 2012, T.H. and M.H. called the police after their cat was shot with a shotgun. A Chisago County Deputy responded to the complainant’s call and upon entering the home saw T.H., who was holding her pet cat. The cat had suffered extensive wounds and the complainants asked the deputy to put the cat down because it was suffering and would not survive. The deputy accommodated the request. During the incident, the cat was wearing a dark collar with a bell on it.
M.H. reported to the deputy that his cat had been shot by their neighbor, Mark Duane Gerard (“Gerard”). M.H. believed Gerard shot the cat because he had problems with Gerard in the past, and when he was outside he heard a gunshot and saw a corresponding plume of smoke coming from Gerard’s yard. The deputy went over to the Gerard residence upon the complainants’ request.
When questioned by the deputy, Gerard admitted to shooting the cat but offered a justification for his actions, stating that he was simply protecting his property. In the past, he observed the cat kill wild baby turkeys on his land and suspected it killed one of his chickens. Gerard admitted that he did not actually see the cat kill his chicken. Additionally, the deputy did not see any dead chickens or turkeys on Gerard’s property but he did observe a chicken coop. Gerard maintained that he did not know whose cat he had shot and had not observed a collar on the cat.
Gerard was charged with one count of mistreating animals pursuant to Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subdivision 1, and because Gerard’s actions caused the death of a companion animal, this constituted a felony. Gerard filed a motion to dismiss for lack of probable cause, arguing there was no evidence that his actions were unjustified. The responding deputy supported Gerard’s motion by submitting an affidavit stating that he was “‘of the opinion that [Gerard’s] actions resulting in the shooting of the white cat . . . were justified.’” The state countered that whether Gerard’s actions were unjustified was a fact issue for the finder of fact. The district court was persuaded by Gerard’s argument and dismissed the complaint, finding insufficient evidence that Gerard unjustifiably killed the cat.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals Decision
On review, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that under Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subdivision 1, a determination of whether a person “unjustifiably” injured, maimed, mutilated or killed an animal is a fact question for a jury. Moreover, the court held that the deputy’s affidavit was improperly relied upon by the district court.
First, with regard to the district court’s improper reliance on the deputy’s affidavit, the court stated that the deputy would not have been able to provide this testimony at trial because the crux of the deputy’s testimony is that of an opinion and he would not be testifying as an expert. If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness’s opinion testimony must be limited to: “those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness and (b) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness’ testimony or the determination of a fact in issue.” Testimony centering on “whether a defendant’s conduct falls within a legal standard are not permitted because they are not helpful to the jury.”
The court concluded that because the deputy did not witness Gerard shooting the cat or witness the cat killing any animals on Gerard’s property, the district court’s reliance on the deputy’s lay opinion as exonerating evidence of justification was improper, especially because the prosecutor possessed substantial admissible evidence that would justify a denial of a motion for a directed verdict of acquittal.
Second, with regard, the unjustifiable standard, the court held that the state provided substantial admissible evidence that would justify a denial of a motion for directed verdict. The State entered evidence that Gerard shot and fatally injured a pet cat and did not observe the cat injuring or killing his chickens. Therefore, the court reasoned, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Gerard’s actions were unjustified––“he could have used a nonlethal means to protect his chickens.” The court noted that Gerard presented evidence that may exonerate him based on justification but the case must be remanded because it is up to the jury to weigh this evidence and the credibility of the witnesses to determine whether Gerard’s actions were unjustified.
Overall, this case involved an important, black letter principle of law that it is for the jury (or judge in a bench trial) to decide the facts. For the purposes of this article, the Gerard decision is important because it unequivocally holds that whether an act of cruelty was “unjustified” is a question of fact within the context of Minnesota Statutes section 343.21, subdivision 1.
If you have been injured by an animal or are having problems with a pet in your neighborhood, call Meuser Law Office, P.A. to discuss your options. The protection of your property and family is important, but laws also serve as an important counter-balance in our society. At Meuser Law Office, P.A., our attorneys understand this balance and are happy to answer your questions.