Police animals, such as horses ridden by mounted police, are specifically protected by California law.

Adapted from photo by Stewart Butterfield (Licensed via CC BY 2.0)

The lawyers of Ashton and Price have handled many cases involving dog bites and other instances in which an animal attacked and injured a person. However, all the partners at the firm are avid animal lovers. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when Craig Ashton and Tim Hodson—along with a special guest, Money 105.5’s Coach Phil Getman—spent some time on a recent episode of All Things Legal discussing a strange case involving a Villanova basketball fan and a police horse.

The laws protecting animals are largely lax, with some exceptions–especially for police animals.

This discussion set the stage for a discussion of the surprising lack of legal protection for the welfare of animals, the exceptions that protect police animals, and the difference between battery and assault.

Craig started off by recounting how, on the night of April 5th, Villanova beat North Carolina with a buzzer-beating three-pointer in the final seconds of the NCAA Championships. Of course, such events tend to lead to celebrations that get a bit out of hand. We’ll let Craig take it from here:

“A few Villanova fans decided to go out and celebrate in the streets in Philadelphia. And one of them ultimately punched a police horse.

“So basically, this led to an arrest for misdemeanor assault on a police animal. So the funny thing is when they talk about ‘assault,’ assault means the threat of violence. ‘Battery’ is the actual touching, hitting, etc.

When pets are harmed, California animal owners are usually only entitled to the monetary value of the animal.

“In California, this is an interesting thing, animals are not typically given the same sort of protection as human beings. Many times, the law looks at an animal as like a couch; it’s property. So for instance, let’s say you take your dog—I’ve got a greyhound, a Maltese, a Chihuahua, and a pig, Piper the pig—and so I’m at the vet’s quite a bit. And my vets are awesome. But, you know, if something happened when my dog was, let’s say, getting his teeth cleaned and passed away due to the anesthesia, I’m only entitled to the value of the dog, right? Because it’s considered property. You don’t get the pain and suffering associated with the relationship that you have.

“California has one exception, whereby if the person that kills your dog knows about your special relationship, which might be a neighbor who knows how much you love your dog and poisons it… but usually it’s just basically the value of the animal. But in California, when you’re dealing with an animal that is used in law enforcement, like a horse or a dog, and you injure that horse or the dog when they are on duty, then you are subject to a felony if you seriously injure that animal.

However, police animals, such as dogs and horses, are specifically protected under California law.

“So that recognizes that that’s more than just a couch. In other words, if you punch a police cruiser, you’re not getting a felony, right? That’s basically just going to be a misdemeanor, probably… because it’s a property crime. But because the law—which I think we need to go more in that direction—recognizes in the case of these animals that they’re more than just an animal, they’re more than just property. They’re starting to be equated more and more with the actual officers. The law basically says punching an animal is like punching an officer, and that’s Penal Code 600 in California. So in California, that would apply if this horse was seriously injured, then you could face two to three years in prison and a significant fine.”

Coach Phil stepped in to ask just how stringent the law is in California. What constitutes an injury warranting a felony charge?

Tim Hodson came to the fore with an unexpected appreciation for all things agrarian, explaining that a horse’s head is extremely strong—a full grown horse’s head is extremely bony, and can weight about 120 pounds—so punching it would be a bit like punching a brick wall. Odds are, the person will suffer much more severe injuries than the unsuspecting horse.

“I’m sure the horse was not seriously injured, so most likely the guy will get charged with a misdemeanor, if the D.A. even wants to deal with that. But a serious injury like shooting a police dog, which happens, or shooting a police horse, that would be a serious injury [warranting a felony charge], but I doubt you would get to a felony level just for punching a horse… But then you start getting into vicarious liability if the horse bucks, and then the officer falls off and gets hurt. There’s a lot of things that can happen to you after that, so just don’t do it.”

Obviously, no animal should ever be abused or harmed, regardless of whether they’re a police service animal, somebody’s pet, or a wild animal. It should be noted that in recent years, activists have been pushing hard for tougher animal cruelty laws with harsher penalties. There’s some evidence that even the federal government is starting to pay attention to animal welfare advocacy groups—this year, the FBI began specifically tracking reports of animal abuse, rather than simply including them with “all other offenses” in their annual crime reports as they had in the past.

Current California law allows for animal cruelty to be charged as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the severity of the acts and the perpetrator’s past criminal history. A misdemeanor charge can result in a fine of up to $20,000 and one year in county jail. Felony charges of animal abuse can be punished with up to 3 years in state prison, and a $20,000 fine.

The easiest way to avoid all of this trouble? Don’t hurt animals.

This goes double for police horses.