(Sept. 4, 2019) On August 5, 2019, a man from the West Midlands of England became the first person convicted under the recently enacted Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act for stabbing a police dog in the head while resisting arrest from the dog’s handler. The defendant, who was under the influence of drugs at the time of the attack, was convicted of a number of offenses and sentenced to 21 months of imprisonment, three of which were for the attack on the dog.
The Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, a simple act of two clauses enacted on April 8, 2019, amended the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to make it an offense to cause unnecessary suffering to a service animals, provided the animal is under the control of an officer and used in the course of the officer’s duty in a reasonable manner. The term “service dog” extends to animals used by police constables, individuals with the powers of a police constable, and prison officers. The common law of self-defense and statutory defense of self-defense may still be claimed in instances where service dogs cause injury to individuals in the course of their work.
Background on the New Law’s Development
After a series of incidents involving attacks on police dogs caused public outrage, a Parliamentary petition was created that called for police dogs to be given the same status as police officers, similar to the law in the United States that makes it a federal offense to maliciously harm a police dog or horse and is punishable with up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The petition received over 127,000 signatures and, as a result, was the subject of an extensive debate in the House of Commons. The government response noted that,
[w]hilst police leaders and campaigners agree that these penalties are appropriate, I understand that it is unpalatable to think of police animals as ‘equipment’ as is inferred by the charges of criminal damage. This does not seem to convey the respect and gratitude police and public feel for the animals involved and their contribution to law enforcement and public safety.
This petition and subsequent debate formed the impetus behind the introduction of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, commonly referred to as Finn’s Law after a police dog that was stabbed and seriously injured during the course of his work while pursuing a suspect. In this case, Finn’s handler was also injured during the arrest of a suspect, who was later charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm to the handler. Finn was stabbed through the chest and across the head with a hunting knife, and the options of a charge on behalf of Finn were under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 for unnecessary suffering to an animal, and/or a charge of criminal damage. The penalty for unnecessary suffering under the 2006 Act was a maximum of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The major shortcoming in this legislation is that section 4(3)(c)(ii) of the Act provides that the court must consider whether suffering caused to an animal was for a legitimate purpose, such as self-defense. This meant that individuals who caused injury to police dogs could claim that they were acting to protect themselves and were thus justified in using force against these animals.
In Finn’s case, it was ultimately decided to charge the defendant with criminal damage, causing many people to protest that this treated Finn the same as a piece of police property rather than a sentient animal dedicated to public service. The penalty for criminal damage may in certain circumstance lead to up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but these types of prosecutions rarely occur because the penalties for such offenses are largely determined by the value of the property damaged. As Finn was close to retirement age, he had little pecuniary value, and no separate penalty was imposed upon the defendant for the attack upon him.