VIRGINIA BEACH — Three years ago, a dog named Sugar was viciously attacked by her owner, Randy Carl Johnson, with a machete.
Sugar survived the attack which meant Johnson only received a Class-1 misdemeanor; he was convicted and sentenced to 12 months in jail, 3 months suspended, according to Virginia Beach Animal Control officials.
Johnson was not fined, but had to pay court fees. Authorities said he was placed on probation for three years — he is barred from owning an animal during that time. That probationary term ends this summer.
Animal Control wants to change the law.
Cases of animal abuse, like Sugar’s, are not uncommon, said Meghan Conti, a Virginia Beach animal enforcement supervisor.
Conti and her fellow Animal Control officers deal with cases of animal abuse more often than they’d like, and under current law most perpetrators get off with only a Class-1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by not more than 12 months of jail time and/or a fine of not more than $2,500, according to state law.
Animal Control’s goal was to change that and in 2016, with the assistance of state Sen. Bill DeSteph, they started the process of introducing a bill that would escalate the charges for cruelty to animals.
DeSteph, a Republican, represents the 8th District in Virginia Beach.
A problem that Animal Control had with the current law was that it was based on the outcome of the act, not just the fact the crime was committed in the first place.
“Our goal is to hold those accountable whose aim it is to do these heinous acts,” she said.
It shouldn’t matter if the animal was killed or euthanized as a result of the actions– animal cruelty should result in a Class-6 felony, she said.
A Class-6 felony can result in prison time of not less than one year nor more than five years, or in the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and/or a fine of not more than $2,500, according to state law.
She said the original law was written more than 20 years ago, a time when medical advancements and public opinion of the safety of animals was vastly different from today.
Now veterinarians have the ability to do much more for the animals in their care and the community is much more likely to rally around a wounded animal’s recovery, she said.
Conti said the road to get where they are now, with unanimous votes leading all the way up to the Virginia General Assembly, was not easy.
“We had to take baby steps,” she said.
Initially Animal Control wanted to make it so that any animal, not just cats or a dogs, would be protected under the new law.
The bill that was voted on, though, laid out an increase from a Class-1 misdemeanor to a Class-6 felony for cruelty or unnecessarily beating, maiming, mutilating or killing a dog or a cat.
In a statement to Southside Daily, DeSteph said, “we are thankful for the overwhelming support for SB 1604, my Animal Cruelty bill seeking felony charges against those who maliciously wound an animal. We have heard from folks all over the Commonwealth who share our belief that anyone who intentionally tortures a dog or cat is a threat to public safety, and should be dealt with severely. We were so saddened by the stories of Tommie, the pit bull who recently died after being set on fire, and Sugar, who was viciously attacked with a machete, but are grateful that their stories helped propel this important legislation forward.”
In the future, Animal Control hopes to add more animals to the wording of the law.
Conti is pretty confident the bill will become law based on the support they’ve received so far.
As of right now, Animal Control has been spending most of their free and working time getting the bill to where it is today and as of Tuesday afternoon, the bill has passed the Senate.
Conti hopes this will empower her officers to make a difference in animals’ lives and they can be a voice to those animals.
Sugar has been sent to one of Animal Control’s rescue partners and continues to do well.