But some animal rights activists say the bill’s good intentions may have backfired.
The Reno Gazette-Journal first reported Sunday that the final version signed into law makes animal abuse cases confidential and gives criminal penalties to officials who release reports or talk about cases.
“The provision makes the investigation confidential, even the report,” Jerry Shay, Washoe County deputy district attorney, told the newspaper.
Contacted Monday by The Associated Press, state Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, an animal lover and prime sponsor of the bill, was surprised to learn about problems with the amendment’s language.
The intention was to allow people to report crimes without fear of retaliation, not to “stifle public knowledge of events,” Manendo said.
“The report itself ... that is not confidential,” he said. “Why would that be any different than if some got caught committing any other kind of felony?”
The measure, SB233, took effect Oct. 1. Known as Cooney’s Law, it was named after a dog that died after being gutted by its owner. At the time, such crimes were misdemeanors. SB233 makes it a felony to maliciously torture, maim, mutilate or kill a companion animal.
The questionable provision states: “Any person, law enforcement agency, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals or animal control agency that willfully releases data or information concerning the reports, except for the purposes of a criminal investigation, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Bonnie Brown, the Nevada Humane Society’s executive director, said “people just now are realizing” that the amendment’s wording is broader than the intention.
“I don’t think any of us disagree that the reporting party should be protected,” she said. “The way it’s written right now, it seems to me ... that simply speaking about the case could make you in violation of the law.”
That could be a problem for animal welfare groups that often publicize severe abuse cases to raise money to help rescued animals or seek information to aid law enforcement, Brown said.
“For us, the generosity of the public is what helps us afford to treat those animals,” she said.
Tom Jacobs, executive director of northern Nevada’s Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals, agreed.
“We are concerned about the ability to educate people and make them aware of what’s going on,” he said. “If an individual murders somebody, it’s all over the place. But if someone mutilates an animal, we can’t comment on it.”
Holly Michael Haley, Humane Society state director, said Cooney’s Law provides much needed improvement to Nevada’s animal cruelty laws.
“But this one amendment provides protections for those accused of animal abuse that other criminal defendants do not receive,” she said. “That should be rectified in the next legislative session.”
Manendo said he may ask legislative lawyers for an interpretation on the law’s scope in light of legislative records.
Minutes from legislative hearings on the amendment requested by Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, indicate the intent was to protect those who report animal abuse by keeping their identity confidential “except to appropriate law enforcement or government agencies for prosecution.”
Lawmakers also could correct the language in 2013, when the next Legislature convenes.
“The good news is it can be remedied,” Jacobs said. “The question is, how soon can it be remedied?”