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Hillsborough commissioners want to seize property in worst animal cruelty cases

TAMPA — When sheriff's deputies raided a home near Plant City on New Year's Day, they confiscated more than 50 roosters, some with razors attached to their legs for cockfighting.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan is seeking a new tool to combat this and other particularly heinous animal cruelty cases. At Wednesday's County Commission meeting, he said he wants law enforcement and animal control officers to seize the perpetrators' property.

"I believe that for the good of our community and for our animal friends, we must take a strong stand and say enough is enough," Hagan said. "It's time to take a strong stand."

Law enforcement officers have for years used state forfeiture laws that allow them to seize property connected to a crime. The practice is most closely associated with drug crime enforcement, in which police take civil action to seize a car, for instance, from which drugs are sold or transported.

Police can then sell the vehicles and keep the proceeds to boost the fight against crime or put what they have seized to use, say, as an undercover patrol car.

Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher said he sees no reason why the law couldn't be applied to seize the property of people convicted of felony animal cruelty charges. Hagan particularly singled out criminal enterprises that are making money.

The law could be applied to seize buildings, equipment used to facilitate cruel treatment, vehicles or cash, such as when animals are used as part of a gambling operation, Fletcher said.

He placed less emphasis on land or homes. Homesteaded property may be protected, abuse could occur in rental housing without a landlord's knowledge, or loans or the condition of buildings could make taking them impractical.

At Wednesday's meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to work with law enforcement to come up with plans for when seizure of property would be appropriate.

In a separate vote, they also unanimously approved seeking legislation that would allow animal control officers, in addition to law enforcement officers, to initiate forfeiture proceedings.

The changes sought also would allow animal welfare agencies, such as the county's Animal Services Department, to keep the proceeds.

Hagan cited one recent case in which suspects in a Seffner dog fighting ring carelessly boasted of holding competitions for more than 20 years and told an animal control officer she was standing on a dog graveyard. He said existing laws do not sufficiently discourage willful animal cruelty.

"I believe we can provide such a deterrent that the risk will be so great of running these illegal operations that these criminals will think long and hard about this type of behavior," Hagan said.

Property forfeiture laws have long proved controversial, with opponents saying they allow law enforcement to too easily take people's possessions when they're accused of a crime. Civil court proceedings also carry a lower burden of proof than it takes to convict someone of a crime.

Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state legislator, warned that seizing property in animal cruelty cases could be seen as being outside the intent of the law, encouraging new challenges. He nevertheless supported both measures.

Hillsborough commissioners want to seize property in worst animal cruelty cases 01/09/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 12:10am]
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