As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, many people had to make tough decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind. Millions of the State’s residents evacuated to escape harm’s way. News outlets in the aftermath of the hurricane reported that dozens of pet owners left behind their pets, some of which were left outside chained to trees as the hurricane approached the coast. Florida law criminalizes various types of animal cruelty, most of which are punishable as misdemeanors. However, some prosecutors have stated to news media outlets that they intend to prosecute people who abandoned their pets under Florida animal cruelty felony statutes. These laws include a specific intent component that raises the evidentiary standard for prosecutors bringing the cases and highlights the importance of an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney.
Florida Statute Section 828.13 criminalizes the illegal confinement or abandonment of animals. This first-degree misdemeanor is punishable by a fine and jail time. The types of abandonment prohibited by the statute include the confinement of an animal without food and water, keeping an animal in an enclosure without exercise and change of air, and abandonment of an animal to die that is sick or infirm. Other animal cruelty laws raise the crime’s punishment to a third-degree felony. For instance, Florida Statute Section 828.12(2) provides that a person who intentionally kills or excessively inflicts unnecessary pain or suffering has committed aggravated animal cruelty, a felony of the third degree. Also, Florida Statute Section 828.122 provides that animal fighting is punishable as a felony of the third degree.
The reports of homeowners abandoning pets by leaving them tied to a tree suggest the possible availability of punishment for a first-degree misdemeanor. If an owner abandoned a pet without food or water before evacuating for the hurricane, this could potentially fall under the misdemeanor statute. However, felony charges are often more difficult to prove or require more severe conduct in order to prosecute. This is true for the animal cruelty felony crime, which requires an intentional act to inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on an animal. Therefore, aggravated animal cruelty appears reserved for the most egregious conduct related to harming an animal.