State legislatures debating use of dogs in courtrooms to calm, assist witnesses; bills out of committee in several states, enacted in Idaho

I mentioned in 2016 that there’s been an increasing number of bills introduced to address the use of animals in court proceedings to calm and assist witnesses. The 2017 session has continued this trend. The bills often contend with two issues: who can have access to such animals (children only? others?) and in what kinds of cases can such an animal be used (criminal? any?)

Alabama HB 393 and SB 273 would permit at the judge’s discretion registered therapy dogs into courtrooms to assist any victim or witness “to reduce unnecessary emotional distress experience by a victim or witness and allow full and factual testimony.” The District Attorney would have to provide instructions on court protocol to the handler. The bills also deal with how to explain the presence of the dog to the jury and authorizes judges to use discretionary court funds to offset the costs for a registered handler for the therapy dog.

SB 273 was approved 7-0 by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee yesterday. HB 393 is in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security but has not yet come up for a hearing.

California AB 411 as amended focuses on 1) child witnesses in cases involving a serious or violation felony and 2) victims entitled under existing law to support persons. These individuals under the bill would be able to have access to a therapy or facility dog and defines these terms, subject to approval by a judge. The bill also deals with how to explain the presence of the dog to the jury.

AB 411 as amended was approved by the Assembly Committee on Public Safety on March 15 and is currently on the Assembly floor (3rd Reading Calendar).

Connecticut HB 6999 as filed would have authorized the use of therapy dogs for those under the age of 18 in criminal cases.

During testimony on the bill by the Connecticut Judicial Branch, it was noted that the state’s supreme court had recently ruled that judges already have the inherent authority to allow for a therapy dog for any witness, in any court proceeding, and that therefore the bill as filed might have the effect of limiting the court’s ability to make such accommodations.

HB 6999 as amended, instead provides the Judicial Branch shall maintain on its website a section providing information regarding the availability of an accommodation, granted at the court’s discretion, for the presence of a dog to provide comfort and support for a child under the age of eighteen during such child’s testimony in the criminal prosecution of an offense involving the alleged assault, abuse or sexual abuse of such child. it also directs that trial judges be trained on this issue.

HB 6999 as amended was approved by the Joint Committee on Children on March 2 and remains pending.

Florida HB 151 amends an existing law that allows the court to use service or therapy animals in proceedings involving a sexual offense to assist a child victim or witness or a sexual offense victim or witness.

As amended, HB 151

  1. Expands the list of proceedings in which support animals may be used to include any proceeding involving child abuse, abandonment, or neglect.
  2. Expands the categories of allowable animals to include a “facility dog”;
  3. Allows a court to set any conditions it finds just and appropriate when taking the testimony of a person who has an intellectual disability, including the use of a therapy animal or facility dog;
  4. Removes the requirement for evaluation and registration of an animal pursuant to national standards, and replaces it with a requirement that an animal be trained, evaluated, and certified according to industry standards; and
  5. Provides definitions for the terms “facility dog” and “therapy animal.”

HB 151 was approved by the full Senate yesterday and is on its way to the governor. The Senate’s similar bill (SB 416) addressed the same issues and was approved on committee, but was ultimately shelved in favor of HB 151.

Idaho SB 1089 as enacted provides when a child is summoned as a witness in any hearing in a noncriminal matter that involves the abuse, neglect or abandonment of the child, including any preliminary hearing, notwithstanding any other statutory provision, a facility dog shall be allowed to remain in the courtroom at the witness stand with the child during the child’s testimony. The bill also defines what a “facility dog” is. SB 1089 was signed into law by the governor in March, with an effective date of July 1, 2017.

Maryland SB 77 amends a 2016 law (SB 1106) that created a pilot program for the use of both facility and therapy dogs with respect to child witnesses in criminal cases and limited the program to two counties (Anne Arundel and Harford). SB 77 would delete the word “criminal”, allowing for the use of such dogs in any case.

SB 77 was approved by the House on April 4 and is in back in the Senate pending transmission to the Governor.