After almost two hours of debate, a contentious livestock-abuse reporting bill cleared the state House of Representatives Wednesday with the minimal vote necessary for a chamber majority, 50-42-2.
The legislation requires individuals who record cruelty to livestock to submit those unedited images to law enforcement within 48 hours or face being charged with a Class C misdemeanor.
Tennessee Code Annotated defines livestock as “all equine as well as animals which are being raised primarily for use as food or fiber for human utilization or consumption, including, but not limited to, cattle, sheep, swine, and goats.” The bill does not apply to dogs, cats or chickens, although some argued it should.
Passage in the House was a hard-fought battle on the part of House Bill 1191 sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, who has argued from the beginning that the purpose of the bill is stop animal abuse as soon as possible.
“How long do you think an animal should have to suffer before the perpetrator is brought to justice?” the Republican from Dresden asked in his closing remarks before the vote. “I particularly believe we should bring that individual to justice as quickly as possible. Others, who oppose this bill, feel like four, five, six months is appropriate, and I completely and wholeheartedly disagree.”
Holt said nothing in the bill would prohibit a person investigating a suspected livestock abuse situation from continuing that investigation after he had turned in the video tape or photographs of the first incident recorded.
Delaying law enforcement while individuals or animal rights groups built cases through continued documentation of abuse was only one argument against the bill, which was bipartisan in its criticism.
The most contentious argument came from Republican Rep. Vance Dennis, who argued that the bill is “unenforceable because you can’t arrest someone for the crime you’re creating.”
“You cannot arrest for a fine-only misdemeanor. You can cite for not coming to court, but if the person doesn’t come to court, you have no means of enforcement, “ said Dennis, an attorney from Savannah.
Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, argued that by attaching a criminal offense to the legislation, “This bill is coercion by government of the worst kind.”
Other arguments raised in the House were much the same as those raised in the Senate on Tuesday, where the legislation passed 22-9, with four Republicans joining five Democrats in voting no.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris brought an amendment that would have rewritten the bill and would have required “any person who has knowledge of or observes” an animal being abused to report it to law enforcement immediately.
However, Senate Bill 1248 sponsor Sen. Delores Gresham moved successfully to kill Norris’ effort, which was tabled on a 17-10 vote.
“Obviously, it’s not the attempt of the sponsor of the bill to make every citizen who might find themselves in a situation where they might observe this to make them a criminal. But indeed that’s essentially what this bill does,” said Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, about the Norris amendment.
Norris, a Republican from Collierville, shot back, “Either you’re opposed to animal abuse or you’re not, and that’s why this amendment is designed to get to the root of the problem. The sponsor says she doesn’t want to criminalize animal abuse in general, just the filming of it. If you see abuse, you need to report it, whether you’re filming it or not.”
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, rose in support of the bill because, “As a farmer, I’ve got livestock, and sometimes people don’t understand the proper handling of livestock. … It could be misunderstood and it could waste a lot of our DA’s time.”
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, again cited the link between those who commit animal abuse at an early age and those who commit child and/or spousal abuse as an adult.
Equally as passionate in favor of the bill, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, expressed outrage at the United States Humane Society for holding the video of soring of a Tennessee walking horse in Collierville for four months before releasing it in May 2012.