The measure from state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-20th of Elizabeth, seeks to shift the Enforcement responsibilities from the state and county-based SPCA organizations to county prosecutor-appointed Animal Cruelty task forces.
TRENTON — The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would be abolished and its affiliated county societies would no longer be authorized to investigate and enforce animal cruelty laws under legislation advancing through the state Legislature during the lame duck.
The measure from state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-20th of Elizabeth, seeks to shift the enforcement responsibilities from the state NJ SPCA and county-based SPCA organizations to county prosecutor-appointed animal cruelty task forces.
Lesniak penned the measure in response to an October report from the State Commission of Investigations that accused the state organization of waste, abuse and “internal dysfunction,” being a persistent haven for “wannabe cops,” and that some members exercised police powers beyond animal cruelty enforcement.
A previous 2001 report by the commission also detailed widespread financial mismanagement and misconduct with the New Jersey SPCA and its county chapters. It specifically cited Burlington County’s chapter and its then-treasurer, who was accused and later convicted of diverting more than $45,000 from the agency for personal use. The county chapter's charter was eventually revoked and the group laterreformed with new leadership.
The state SPCA was first empowered by state law to investigate and enforce animal cruelty in 1868. Under the law, its members are endowed with Law Enforcement powers, including the right to carry handguns.
“We are the only state in the nation that relies on a private organization to enforce a criminal law. This will change that,” Lesniak said Thursday during a hearing on the legislation in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. “The law enforcement folks not only accept this responsibility but welcome it, because that’s what they do — law enforcement.
Under the legislation, each county task force would be overseen by a designated assistant prosecutor and each would have an appointed officer to act as the task force’s chief humane law enforcement officer to supervise investigations and other enforcement actions.
Each municipality would also be required to designate at least one humane law enforcement officer, although the measure specifies that police officers or animal control officers could serve in that post concurrently with their other duties and that an officer could also serve in multiple towns.
County SPCAs would not be abolished, but rather than investigating animal cruelty reports, such nonprofit organizations would be responsible for providing or locating humane shelter for animals in the possession of humane law enforcement officers.
“A lot of the county SPCAs do great work,” Lesniak said, adding that the bill would allow members of the county organizations to partner with the new county task forces and law enforcement officers.
“This is a great addition to the current system and would certainly alleviate some of issues that have come up over the years as stated in the two SCI reports that have come out,” he said.
Lesniak and committee chairman Paul Sarlo, D-36th of Wood-Ridge, stressed that the revamp would not require county prosecutor offices to hire additional investigators to take over the duties and that sheriff officers would also be able to serve on the task forces and as humane law enforcement officers.
Municipalities would also be able to use their own animal control or police for the enforcement. Towns would also receive any fines from nonindictable animal cruelty offense convictions.
The New Jersey Association of Counties supports the measure but the New Jersey League of Municipalities has continued to express concerns about the possibility that expenses of enforcement could be shifted to municipal governments.
Phil Amato, an investigator with NJ SPCA’s enforcement division, testified in opposition to the legislation, arguing that lawmakers were moving too fast and that abolishing the state organization would shift the burden of investigating and enforcing animal cruelty on local governments and taxpayers.
“This is an underappreciated law enforcement agency. People don’t understand what we do and at no cost to taxpayers,” Amato said, citing a recent case where SPCA officers investigating animal cruelty in Newark contacted police about a man carrying an assault weapon.
He was also critical of the SCI report, saying it was full of “inflammatory, unprofessional and explosive allegations, insinuations and blatant lies.”
“I think this (legislation) needs more work and I think the state SPCA should be involved in law enforcement to assist you,” Amato said.
The measure was advanced by a 12-0 vote with three lawmakers abstaining, among them Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-11th of Red Bank, who said she was concerned the bill was moving too quickly.
“The SCI report was obviously highlighting some inefficiencies — to put it nicely — in the organization of New Jersey’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals, but we have the second oldest SPCA in the county,” Beck said before the vote. “My instinct is we’re moving on this bill very quickly when we have an entity that has been around for hundreds of years. … We should just be certain that the changes we’re making are for the positive.”
Others on the committee said they were convinced it was time for change.
“I deeply respect the NJ SPCA too and I know it’s been around since 1868, but sometimes, as with many other things it’s time to change, it’s time to move forward, it’s time to improve and make things better,” Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-1st, of Dennis. “I’ve been the Legislature long enough to see this go around and around and around. It’s never resolved.”
The vote advanced the measure to the full Senate for consideration. In order to become law, both Senate and Assembly must approve it and the governor must sign it before the current two-year session ends next month.
Any bills not signed into law before the session ends die and must be reintroduced in the new session and advanced through legislative committees again.