Tennessee has become the first state in the nation to create a registry of convicted animal abusers, which will let animal shelters check out potential adopters more thoroughly. The online database goes live on January 1, 2016 and it will be accessible to the public.
The registry—created by the Tennessee Animal Abuser Registration Act signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on May 8—charges the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) with posting a list of individuals convicted of aggravated animal cruelty, felony animal fighting, bestiality and related offenses, and cruelty to animals. The act defines “animal” as companion animals—specifically dogs and cats—and excludes livestock.
“It seems to be a popular law,” says Amber Mullins, communications director for the Humane Society of Tennessee Valley in Knoxville. Mullins says the registry will provide another resource to consult during the process of finding adoptable pets loving homes. “I think animal abuse is still going to happen, but this is a really good start,” she notes.
Starting in 2016, the state’s court clerks will forward to the TBI a copy of the judgment and date of birth of individuals convicted of an animal abuse offense. The TBI will post convicted animal abusers’ full legal name and mug shot. The registry will not include the convicted animal abuser’s social security number, driver license number, or any other state or federal identification number, according to the act. Convicted animal abusers’ information will remain on the registry for two years following a first offense and five years following a second or more offenses.
The registry will not be retroactive and will only comprise individuals convicted of animal abuse crimes after Jan. 1, 2016. “That means it could be awhile before names actually start appearing on the registry,” notes Josh DeVine, a TBI public information officer. The TBI’s Tennessee Animal Abuse Registry webpage is currently under construction.
DeVine also points out that the new registry won’t cost taxpayers a thing because the TBI is absorbing the cost of creating and maintaining the database.
Rep. Darren Jernigan (D) served as the bill’s primary sponsor. The state representative says disturbing stories of animal abuse inspired him to introduce the bill. One incident in particular stayed with him because of the light sentence the perpetrator received.
In 2013, Tennessee resident David Matson was convicted of aggravated animal cruelty for beating a puppy to death with a tire iron in 2012. The Lebanon Democrat reported Matson was sentenced to two years of supervised probation. Because no database of convicted animal abusers existed at the time, “[Matson] could go out and get another puppy the next day,” Jernigan pointed out.
Tennessee’s animal abuse registry may be the first in the country, but lawmakers in several other states are attempting to pass similar legislation.
According to the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), which is dedicated to ending the exploitation of animals used in science, lawmakers in 10 states introduced but failed to pass bills establishing an animal abuser registry before the end of the 2015 legislative session. Those states are: Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
“Tennessee was able to pass its legislation because the bill was limited in scope and did not put any financial burden on taxpayers,” says Jernigan. However, the bill was tweaked for three years before a bipartisan consensus could be reached, he adds. Among other concerns, lawmakers worried that some individuals, such animal hoarders, who often have good but misguided intentions, would unjustly end up listed in the database.
Jernigan emphasizes the registry will only include individuals convicted of felonies, although he’d like to see those convicted of animal abuse-related misdemeanors included as well one day. The state representative acknowledges that it may be difficult to quantify the impact the registry will have on animal abuse in Tennessee, but adds, “I don’t see how the registry can be a bad thing.”