Criminal Charges Being Considered in the United Dog Death

Mar 22, 2018

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District attorneys in both Houston and New York are considering criminal charges after a dog placed in an overhead bin of a United flight died last week.

“We have a task force, an animal cruelty task force led by precinct five, and they are conducting the investigation,” Chief of Harris County’s Animal Cruelty Division Carvana Cloud told KPRC2.

The three-and-a-half-hour United flight originated in Houston (IAH) and landed in New York (LGA). DAs in both Houston’s Harris County and Queens, New York, are conducting a criminal investigation to see whether they have jurisdiction on the case. It is unclear in which area the dog died, and therefore, unclear which city would be able to prosecute the case. When an aircraft is in the air, it falls under federal district jurisdiction. In order for one of the cities to press charges, it would have to prove that some element of the crime happened there.

“We are currently reviewing the facts to determine if there is a prosecutable case,” a spokeswoman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown told ABC News.

United says that the flight attendant was not aware there was a dog in the bag when she asked a passenger to put the dog carrier in the overhead bin. But, the airline still takes responsibility for the 10-month-old French bulldog puppy’s death.

“We have learned that the customer did tell the flight attendant that there was a dog in the carrier,” United said in a statement. “However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her, and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin. As we stated, we take full responsibility and are deeply sorry for this tragic accident.”

“It’s really difficult to predict the final outcome,” Diane Balkin, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told TPG. The jurisdictional issue complicates how either city would bring charges, she says. The two DA offices could potentially have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning they could both file criminal complaints, or a federal district court in Texas, New York or the states in between would also have jurisdiction over the airspace.

“They will have to analyze closely to prove an element of whatever offense is charged happened in their jurisdiction,” which is entirely possible, Balkin says.

The matter of the actual charges are complicated, too. The likely charges in either state are animal cruelty charges and/or improper confinement of an animal that could cause pain, suffering or death. “There are a host of levels where it’s challenging,” Balkin says. “Who’s accountable? Is it an accident? Was it reckless or negligent conduct? Does it seem intentional or premeditated?”

The answers to this litany of questions will determine if the charges are either a felony or a misdemeanor. Additionally, if the charges carry a fine or jail time depends on who is charged, the degree of culpability and if they have a criminal history.

New York lawyer Alex Bachuwa says that if the charges are brought in New York, it’s possible the flight attendant could be charged with carrying an animal in a cruel manner. The statute states that a person who carries an animal or causes an animal to be carried in any vessel, in a cruel or inhumane manner, so as to produce torture, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

“Here, that person was the flight attendant and the vessel was the airplane,” Bachuwa said in an email. “Per the statute, it is irrelevant if the flight attendant put the dog in the overhead or if the owner did so. The reason the flight attendant could be charged is because the law states that the person carries or causes i.e., if the flight attendant instructed the passenger to do so, this would be enough to find the flight attendant guilty.”

According to Bachuwa, it’s also possible the flight attendant could be charged with animal cruelty. That statute says in part that anyone who permits any animal to be tortured, unjustifiably injured or killed, or in any way furthers any act of cruelty to any animal, or any act tending to produce such cruelty, is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.

In New York, a class A misdemeanor carries a punishment of up to one year in jail or three years probation and up to a $1,000 fine. In Texas, a class A misdemeanor has a punishment of up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $4,000.

But, Balkin says in order to successfully charge anyone, the DAs will have to prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

In a poll in the TPG Lounge on Facebook, 88% of TPG readers who voted (as of this writing) said they would want to see criminal charges filed if the investigation finds negligence was involved. Meanwhile, 11% of readers who voted said they wouldn’t want to see criminal charges filed, and 1% filled in their own answers.

Since the incident, United has said that beginning in April, it will issue brightly colored tags for pet carriers to help identify in-cabin pets and avoid confusion in the future.

In an email to TPG, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals called the incident a “terrible tragedy that should never have happened,” and said that the society supports “current federal legislative efforts to prohibit the storage of live animals in overhead compartments of airplanes.”

That legislation was introduced last week after the dog’s death. US Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana introduced a bill last week that would prohibit airlines from overhead bins and would fine all violators. On Tuesday, New York State Senator Marisol Alcantara introduced an animal passenger bill of rights for New York airlines that would require: pets be given access to food, water and medications during a flight, are kept in a climate-controlled environment, and are never placed in an overhead compartment. Violators of any of those rights could be fined up to $5,000.

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