Last month we discussed ranking systems and the 2020 Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) U.S. State Animal Protection Laws Rankings.

The annual ranking by the ALDF, a national nonprofit that uses the legal system to protect animals, shows Michigan in 13th place for 2020. ALDF considers Michigan a “top tier” state for animal protection laws. Michigan has ranked as high as 5th in years past because it was one of the first states to enact animal protection statutes. However, as other states have improved their animal protection statutes, they have moved up on the list, which has caused Michigan’s position to fall.

Regardless of a state’s ALDF ranking, there is always more legislative work to be done to protect animals. In addition, the value of a particular ranking system to its audience depends on whether that ranking system is based on the criteria the audience values. The ALDF ranking is based on its assessment of a state’s legislative strengths and weaknesses. ALDF explicitly states that enforcement is not a consideration, but of course, a statute without effective enforcement is meaningless.

Enforcement is a fair place for ALDF to draw the line, however, because it would be very difficult to devise uniform metrics for measuring enforcement and then gather the information necessary to apply those metrics to all animal welfare legislation in every state. And there are some things, like the passion for animal and human welfare and community wellbeing, that drive enforcement and can’t be measured. The dedication and work ethic of Michigan’s cruelty and rescue team is a good example. But as one way to measure enforcement here in Michigan, we can consider sentencing for defendants convicted of violating Michigan’s anticruelty statute (MCL § 750.50b).

The statute provides the maximum penalties that can be imposed upon conviction. Amendments to the statute in 2018 created first-, second-, and third-degree animal cruelty felonies. First-degree animal cruelty carries a maximum sentence of ten years, second degree carries a potential seven-year sentence, and third degree carries a possible four-year sentence. To qualify for first- or second-degree status, the crime must have been committed against a companion animal among other factors. While these are significant sentences, typically, the sentence given is nowhere near the maximum.

One reason for this is the Michigan statutory sentencing guidelines. In felony cases where there is no mandatory sentence, the court is required to consider the statutory sentencing guidelines, which consider the defendant’s prior record; the offense variable, which is determined by crime group (crimes against persons, property, involving a controlled substance, against public order, against public safety, or against public trust); and crime class, which is determined by the seriousness of the offense.

Crimes against animals are considered crimes against property, as animals are legally property. Crime classes are given letter values, with Class A offenses being the most egregious. Crimes against animals are rated D-, E-, F-, or G-class offenses. If the defendant does not have any prior record, the sentencing guidelines will not likely generate a maximum sentence.

However, in 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent and held that Michigan’s sentencing guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, and that a sentencing court would no longer be required to state “substantial and compelling reasons” for departing from the guidelines. A sentence that departs from the guidelines can be reviewed on appeal for reasonableness.

An example of a departure from sentencing guidelines came in 2019 in the case of the murder of Sterling, a two-year-old pit bull type dog, who was adopted from Michigan Humane under false pretenses and given to defendant Alexander Gerth.  Gerth, 23, had tried to adopt Sterling, but his application was denied because of his living arrangements. He abused Sterling and ultimately stabbed him three times, leaving him to die in a public park. Gerth was charged with violating Michigan’s anticruelty statute. He had a criminal history, but even so, the guidelines would have yielded a sentence of two to twenty-one months.

The Macomb County Circuit Court judge deviated from the guidelines and sentenced Gerth to three to six years and prohibited him from ever owning another dog. He said that he could not adhere to the guidelines in good conscience and referred to Gerth’s “unbelievable cruelty.” While Gerth had pled no contest to the charges, he requested and was appointed an appellate attorney, presumably to appeal the sentence. But as of June 17, 2021, there is no record of an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Enforcement, including imposing meaningful sentences when defendants are found guilty, is critical to the value of our animal protection laws. Michigan Humane is committed to working with stakeholders to address the deficiencies in the sentencing guidelines and works with law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to facilitate enforcement of Michigan’s animal protection laws.

We are going to keep working to improve animal welfare and serving as a voice for the animals through advocacy. Together, we can continue to make a difference in animals’ lives. If you know someone who you think would be interested in this information, please share and encourage them to sign up for our Legislative Action Network.

Photo credit: Michigan Humane

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