From the State That Gave Us Michael Vick, Here is Another Insulting Slap on the WristPosted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on June 2nd, 2008
back to November of 2007, to Hillsville, Virginia, where Carroll County
officials had to declare a state of emergency to deal with the more
than 1,000 dogs seized from Lanzie Horton, Jr. (d/b/a Horton’s Pups)
and commonly know as "Junior," due to allegations of neglect during the
administration of what was one of the largest puppy mill busts in the
United States. Recall that while the case was pending, a Horton’s Pups agent (Junior’s father) told local media
that if his son’s puppy mill license was revoked, they (the Horton
family) had plenty of other family members that would secure a
breeder’s license and that there was no way that the Humane Society was
going to shut them down. Junior’s dad even told the local media that
they were going to "rub the Humane Society’s nose in it."
Now, fast forward to May 16, 2008, where Junior Horton had his first trial in the Virginian General District Court (Virginia’s General District Courts are limited jurisdiction courts—no official record or transcript of the proceedings is kept and unsuccessful defendants have the right, upon conviction, to appeal de novo to the circuit court for a second, "real" trial, on the record). After learning of his conviction on all 40 counts (14 cruelty charges, 25 neglect charges and one licensing violation) Junior announced at the conclusion of his bench trial before judge Edward Turner, that he would appeal his case. However, in assessing the sentence imposed by Judge Turner, one has to ask Junior why?
To the uninitiated, the sentence might sound rather harsh. After all, there is mention of 12 years of prison and fines of up to $2,500 per count (totally more than $47,000). However, Judge Turner suspended the entire 12-year jail term—meaning Junior does not have serve a single day of jail. Moreover, of the more than $47,000 in pronounced fines, all but $4,750 was suspended—meaning Junior pays $4,750 in fines, NOT $47,000 in fines. And the final straw: Judge Turner made a judicial finding that, in Judge Turner’s view, Junior isn’t a cruel man and promptly refused to shut down Horton’s operation. To his credit, the court did cap the number of dogs Junior could possess to 250.
The sentence in this case is yet another classic example of how out of touch trial judges can be when it comes to animal cruelty cases. Change the subject matter of this case from exploited, live victims with the capacity to suffer and substitute oh, I don’t know, say guns or controlled substances and assume that Junior had a license to sell said guns or controlled substances. Would the judge allow Junior to continue to sell the regulated item in the wake of these types of abuses of the license? I doubt it. Would the court suspend the entire term of incarceration? I doubt that as well. Would the court make a character finding in favor of the offender? Not likely. This sentence out of Hillsville, Virginia, coupled with the November, 2007, re-election of Gerald Poindexter, the Surry County prosecutor who completely botched the State’s dogfighting case against Michael Vick (recall that the Feds had to step in) and one has to wonder what the voters of Virginia are thinking.
To be fair to the voters of Virginia, I must concede that the General Assembly did pass a reasonably good anti-puppy mill bill (H.B. 538) in March of this year, which the governor not only signed but also accelerated the effective date by moving it up from July 2009 to January of 2009 (the Governor even struck the language making the bill unenforceable unless the state put public money behind it during the 2008 session—which would have likely rendered it a hollow act given the tanking economy)... This fact is redeeming for the people of Virginia, but only further underscores the poor decision making of Judge Turner in sentencing Junior to what amounts to a slap on the wrist.