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Senate Vote on Animal-Abuse Reporting Delayed

Upper-chamber GOP leadership questions focus of legislation aimed at whistleblowers

Legislation is on the Tennessee Senate floor that would require individuals who shoot video or take photographs of people being cruel to animals to submit those images to law enforcement within 24 hours.

The bill is on hold now though, after conflicting perspectives on the proposal emerged between fellow GOP caucus members. It was rolled until next week.

On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris told members of the body that he sees problems with Somerville Republican Delores Gresham’s measure, Senate Bill 1248.

“This is a Catch-22 bill. I don’t know anybody in here who favors animal cruelty,” said Norris, an attorney from Collierville. “We oppose animal cruelty, yet it’s being construed in some quarters as a bill that supports animal cruelty.”

An individual could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fine only if he fails to turn in a video or photographs taken of an animal being abused. Under Tennessee law, those found guilty of a Class C misdemeanor may be charged up to $10,000.

Norris said the way the bill is drafted, one could argue that it’s not designed to prevent animal cruelty but rather “to prevent the filming of animal cruelty under certain circumstances.”

“I don’t know why this bill doesn’t require those who witness animal abuse, whether they are filming it or not, to report it immediately,” Norris said. “This actually creates exceptions.”

Norris said the bill “sort of suggests” that it would be OK for somebody who likes to film animal cruelty to do it, because the person is not doing it for the purpose of exposing it.

Norris indicated he thinks the legislation came about as a result of “an incident that was filmed in (Gresham’s) district.” He added, “We shouldn’t be passing bills because of a particular incident like that.”

In May 2012, an undercover Humane Society-shot video showing a Tennessee walking-horse trainer mistreating horses aired nationally. Earlier this month, three people were indicted by a grand-jury in Fayette County on charges stemming from alleged “soring” of Tennessee Walking horses. Fayette County is in Gresham’s district.

Gresham, who is in her second term as a senator after serving two terms in the House, said she understood her colleagues’ struggles with the bill, but defended it by saying it “is very narrowly tailored in a specific way.”

She said the bill was directed toward livestock because agriculture, which is written across the state seal, “is our identity. We take care of our animals, and we will not have people abuse them, and certainly not allow the abuse to continue for the sake of documentation.”

Noting that some have called it “an anti-whistle blower bill,” Gresham argued it is just the opposite.

“What I’m saying in this bill is, ‘Whistle blower, blow your whistle and take what you have to law enforcement because that’s where it belongs,’” she said. “Investigations and documentation, if that’s what is required, needs to be done by law enforcement not by vigilantes.”

She acknowledged that while the inspiration for her bill “may be distantly related to an event in my district,” the fundamental concern is to stop abuse.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis suggested that the bill be rolled until next week and Gresham agreed. “If we can make it stronger, it is my pleasure to work on the bill,” she said.

The bill was rolled to next Tuesday’s Senate floor session. The companion House Bill 1191 was referred to the Calendar & Rules Committee on March 26. It has yet to be placed on the calendar for the lower chamber’s vote.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

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