To make children and other vulnerable witnesses comfortable while testifying, courts are increasingly permitting such witnesses to be accompanied by specially trained dogs while on the stand. The concept of using such dogs long precedes references in cases.
For a discussion of that early history of this phenomenon, see Marianne Dellinger, Using Dogs for Emotional Support of Testifying Victims of Crime, 15 Animal Law Review 171 (2008). For a discussion of the history of facility dogs up to 2013, see Casey Holder, Comment: All Dogs Go to Court: The Impact of Court Facility Dogs as Comfort for Child Witnesses on a Defendant’s Right to a Fair Trial, 50 Houston Law Review 1155 (Symposium, 2013) (stating that “currently sixteen states allow dogs into the courtroom.”). Another law review article published only a few months later found 21 states had implemented courthouse dog programs. Sarah Bowers, The Use of ‘Therapy Dogs’ in Indiana Courtrooms: Why a Dog Might Not Be a Defendant’s Best Friend, 46 Indiana Law Review 1289 (2013). For a recent assessment of the number of canine support programs for victim witnesses, with details about the numbers of dogs in some programs, see David LaBahn and Amy Farina, Providing Comfort, Companionship, and Relief: The Use of Courtroom Dogs. 81(12) The Police Chief 24 (December 2014). A student note published the same year focused on New York law and argued that therapy dogs should not be permitted to assist children testifying during criminal trials. Abigayle L. Grimm, An Examination of Why Permitting Therapy Dogs to Assist Child-Victims When Testifying During Criminal Trials Should Not Be Permitted, 16 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 263 (2013). Another article focusing on a specific state, Pennsylvania, reviewed cases from all jurisdictions before voicing a preference for the position of the Supreme Court of Washington State. Matthew Kaiser, Sit … Stay … Now Beg for Me: A Look at the Courthouse Dogs Program and the Legal Standard Pennsylvania Should Use to Determine Whether a Dog Can Accompany a Child on the Witness Stand, 60 Villanova Law Review 343 (2015).
Some of these articles refer to prosecutions where facility dogs were used but where no judicial decision or order with substantial discussion described the use of a dog in a judicial proceeding. The discussion here, however, confines its analysis to such judicial pronouncements. This article is being posted online so that discussions of new cases can be easily added to show how the acceptance of dogs with a function of helping a witness testify is evolving.
At present, the preferred judicial and legislative term for a dog accompanying a witness during testimony is “facility dog,” though cases, statutes, and literature have also called them testimony dogs, courthouse dogs, companion dogs, therapy dogs, service dogs, comfort dogs, therapy assistance dogs, support dogs, victim support dogs, and therapeutic comfort dogs. Most of these terms imply canine functions in providing comfort or reducing anxiety (emotional support dogs) and should be avoided because the function of the dogs in a courtroom setting is far more specific. Most dogs described in cases so far have been trained in a manner similar to how therapy dogs are trained, but not all dogs were actually trained or certified therapy dogs so this term would also be confusing. A service dog is generally a dog that assists a particular individual with a disability, but facility dogs may be used with vulnerable witnesses in a particular state while living with a master who is not disabled. Therefore, that term is also best avoided. Companion dogs are generally pets, though some degree of need may be implied in specific contexts. Calling a dog a courthouse dog has a clever journalistic ring, but might suggest the dog lives in the courthouse, on call like a stenographer or translator. In the end, facility dog or testimony dog may be the best choices, and facility dog will be used as the default setting here.
B. Tabular Summary of U.S. Decisions
The decisions involving facility dogs (or dogs designated as having similar functions) used for the testimony of children or vulnerable witnesses are summarized in the following table, which lists key aspects of the parties, dogs, as well as two issues that are becoming paramount in resolving objections to the use of such dogs: what must be shown by the prosecution in order for a court to grant a motion to allow such a dog to accompany a witness (including where the burden lies), and what efforts must be made to limit possible prejudice from the jury’s awareness of the dog’s accompaniment of a witness.
Effort to Minimize Prejudice
California v. Spence (2012)
11-year-old step daughter of defendant
Sexual assault including penetration and sodomy
Dog not described aside from fact it sat at victim’s feet
No claim of interference with defendant’s right to confront and cross-examine victim-witnesses; lack of evidence dog’s presence affected jury
Jury cautioned; trial court took care to ensure dog mainly unnoticeable; trial judge stated that improper activity of therapy dog would result in its removal from courtroom
Connecticut v. Devon (2014)
Three children of defendant, respectively 6, 8, and 10 years old when the alleged abuse began
Multiple charges of sexual assault and risk of injury to a child
Dog named Summer owned by therapist; dog’s training not described but court said that dog should be “suitably trained”
There had to be a finding, or at least a showing, that the special procedure of allowing a child victim to testify with a facility dog at his or her side was needed
Trial court provided caution to jury, but appellate court did not discuss issue of instructions because showing of necessity was not established before dog’s presence allowed
Washington v. Dye (2013)
Adult male with developmental disabilities and mental retardation
Fraudsters convicted of aggravated first-degree theft, residential burglary
Ellie, Golden Retriever trained by and living with prosecutor
Not defendant’s burden to prove prejudice by dog but prosecution’s burden to prove special dispensation necessary for vulnerable witness, but need not prove substantial need or compelling necessity; also defendant failed to establish his fair trial rights were violated or that jury instructions largely mitigated prejudicial effect
Witness allowed to give treats to dog during testimony; caution to jury; if Ellie had played with victim or growled at defendant, trial court could have removed her from courtroom
New York v. Tohom (2013)
15-year-old daughter of defendant
Father accused of predatory sexual assault, endangering welfare of child
Rose, Golden Retriever, trained from age of 8 weeks to sense stress and anxiety and present herself to be petted
Defendant failed to show accommodation of comfort-therapy dog was impermissible under state statute on support persons and accommodations of child witnesses, impaired right to fair trial, or compromised right of confrontation and cross-examination; trial court had discretion where animal could ameliorate psychological and emotional stress of a testifying child witness; necessity requirement for prosecution not preserved for appellate review
Instructions to jury to minimize prejudice; dog’s presence in courtroom described as unobtrusive
Washington v. Moore (2014)
Wife of defendant
Husband convicted of assault with domestic violence
Dog named Keris, referred to as a service or comfort dog
No evidence presence of dog made witness appear traumatized or victimized
No objection at trial so issue of prejudice not preserved for appeal
California v. Chenault (2014)
Girls/11 and 13 (daughters of niece of defendant)
Male relative convicted of multiple forcible lewd acts on his daughter and girls within family
Described as support and companion dog, “trained in providing support”
No burden on prosecution to show individualized necessity; presence of dog should assist or enable witness to testify
Dog brought in and out without jury present, kept as inconspicuous as possible (though apparently within sight of jury); caution to jury
Ohio v. George (2014)
Two children, 6 and 8 years old
Boyfriend of mother convicted of rape of victims under 10 years old
Dog named Avery described as facility dog, companion dog, working dog
Trial court declines to rule on objection to presence of dog as a Daubert issue; during pre-trial hearing, Avery did not behave at one point and defense counsel renewed his objection to dog’s presence in courtroom; no objection at trial meant appellate court did not need to address defense assignments or error with regard to use of dog
Dog not permitted to wear any identification of prosecutor’s office and handler not to wear prosecutor’s shirt or cover it with jacket or sweater but jury saw dog enter with witness; caution to jury
C. Training and Membership Requirements
Several state statutes, law review articles, and Courthouse Dogs, Inc., a foundation devoted to advancing the use of facility dogs, have stated that facility dogs should be trained by member organizations of Assistance Dogs International, an international accrediting organization with a North American chapter (Assistance Dog International North America, portal at http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/regional-chapters/north-america-adina/). A note in the Indiana Law Review (Bowers, above) recommends that “organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International” be used to train facility dogs.
Illinois Public Act 099-0094, adopted in 2015 and discussed in greater detail in a later section of this article, provides that a child or an intellectually disabled person or a person affected by a developmental disability” may under conditions be permitted to testify, in proceedings involving sexual assault and abuse crimes, in the presence of a facility dog. Such a “facility dog” is defined by the act as “a graduate of an assistance dog organization that is a member of Assistance Dogs International.” Arkansas Act 957, adopted in 2015, requires insurance of facility dogs, which must be trained by Assistance Dogs International “or a similar nonprofit organization that attempts to set the highest standard of training for dogs for the purpose of reducing stress in a child witness….” A Florida statute dating from 2012, however, provides that that a court can allow a child to testify in a proceeding involving a sexual offense in the presence of “a service or therapy animal that has been evaluated and registered according to national standards.”
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation, at present the leading advocate on the use of facility dogs in the United States, states on its website that facility dogs specialized “in assisting individuals with physical, psychological, or emotional trauma due to criminal conduct … should be graduates from assistance dog organizations that are accredited members of Assistance Dogs International to ensure that they do not create a public danger and are stable, well-behaved, and unobtrusive to the public. Facility dogs in the legal system are handled by criminal justice professionals, such as a deputy prosecutor, a law enforcement officer, a victim advocate, or a forensic interviewer.” Assistance Dogs International has a webpage devoted to training standards for facility dogs (http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/standards/assistance-dogs/standards-for-dogs/training-standards-for-facility-dogs/).
A program developed by the American Humane Society, the Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK)TM Program, argues for the use of therapy animals in legal proceedings where a “judge is open-minded and willing to consider the purpose of AAT [animal-assisted therapy] in the courtroom.” The manual is posted on the website of the American Humane Society (http://www.americanhumane.org/assets/pdfs/children/therapy-animals-supporting-kids.pdf), but states that it was developed in cooperation with Delta Society (Pet Partners), an organization that promulgates training standards and administers tests for therapy animals.
A commenter in a Houston Law Review Symposium (Holder, above) argues that an “appropriate canine should be one specifically trained for the legal world by an organization that specializes in training court facility dogs.” It is the author’s opinion that no specific organization should be designated with authority to train or test dogs for work at trials. The prosecution should have the burden of establishing the dog was adequately trained or has evidenced the ability to function appropriately in a courtroom before. The standards provided by Assistance Dogs International for facility dogs are well drafted, but substantially similar to obedience and behavioral requirements for therapy dogs licensed by national therapy dog organizations. There is no need to create such a monopoly for a single or limited number of service or therapy dog organizations or trainers, or to turn the qualification of a handler for such a dog into a guild controlled by a small group of organizations.
Note on the order of cases discussed herein: This article maintains a running revision format with newer cases added after the introduction so that readers periodically reading the updates to the case summaries in the article can avoid going through the legacy material. Similarly, the coverage of legislation in later sections of the article begins with the most recent statute and moves backward. This is not to say, however, that comments on older cases and statutes may not change to reflect new perspectives reached by the author from time to time.
II. FAILURE TO OBJECT AT TRIAL DOOMS OHIO APPEAL WHERE DOG VISIBLY ACCOMPANIES CHILD WITNESSES DURING TESTIMONY
Ohio v. George, No. 27279, 2014 Ohio App. LEXIS 5597 (December 31, 2014)
Clayton George was convicted of raping two children of his girlfriend, age six and eight at the time of the crime. Among assignments of error on appeal was that the trial court had abused its discretion in allowing Avery, a facility dog, to accompany the two children during their testimony without a showing of necessity.
A. Motions Prior to Trial Regarding Use of Dog
Prior to trial, the prosecution had filed a motion to permit Avery to accompany the children into the courtroom and remain with them during their testimony. The prosecution argued that “Avery’s presence is solely for the therapeutic purposes of enabling [the children] to testify with less stress and a greater degree of accuracy.” The argument that the children’s testimony would have a greater degree of accuracy because of the presence of the dog should have received more attention from the defense, and probably from the trial court.
The defense filed a motion in limine challenging the presence of the dog under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and stating that “[a]ny contention by the State … that the presence of [Avery\] during trial has a calming or therapeutic effect is not supported by any accepted tested, and/or reviewed theory in the scientific community.” The trial judge denied the motion, stating that he had been given some materials by the prosecutor’s office that were not “directly on point, but …there are ways to make … analogies to other types of things.” The judge said that “to put your mind at rest, … Avery is not … permitted in the courthouse during this trial wearing any identification of the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office.” Whether defense counsel’s primary concern was the dog’s gear is not clear. In any case, the dog was to wear “a plain harness or vest.” The handler was permitted to be in the courtroom, but she was not to wear “her Summit Country Prosecutor’s Polo shirt or she wears a jacket or sweater over it or something like that….” Jurors were to be shielded from any knowledge that the dog and handler were present “on behalf of the prosecutor’s office.”
The trial judge remarked on the uniqueness of the Daubert challenge to the evidence but felt that “at this point I’m going to say that I don’t think it falls under Daubert because it’s not direct evidence.” The judge ruled that defense counsel could cross-examine the children during their competency hearings regarding their history and involvement with Avery. During the competency hearing, “[a]t one point when Avery was not behaving, [defense] counsel stated his objection to having the dog present in the courtroom,” and on cross-examination he asked one of the witnesses about her previous interactions with the dog at the prosecutor’s office. At trial he did not object to the dog’s presence with the witnesses.
B. Cautionary Jury Instruction
The judge prepared a cautionary instruction, which is quoted in part by the appellate court:
You must not draw any inference either favorably or negatively for either side because of the dog's presence. You must not permit sympathy for any party to enter into your considerations as you listen to [H.S.'s] testimony, and this is especially so with an outside factor such as the facility dog.
The dog is--you know, it's a companion. It's a working dog, I guess, or a companion dog in the sense that we have all seen people with disabilities have a dog who assists them.
As these children do not have disabilities, but it is a companion animal and its classification, I guess if you would, is that it's a facility dog; in other words, it facilitates, as I said yesterday, vulnerable witnesses; and it is a resource of the county available to any vulnerable witness who would be called to testify.
C. Assignments of Error Rejected
On appeal, the defense argued that (1) unlike the facility dogs in Tohom, Spence, and Dye, Avery was “recognizable on the record while he was in court,” (2) the prosecution failed to show necessity for having Avery at trial, and (3) the standards set in Tohom, Spence, and Dye should have applied to determine whether Avery was permitted at trial. The appellate court noted that the defense had not objected to the presence of the dog during the trial nor had he made these three points at trial, meaning that the appellate court did not need to consider them for the first time on appeal under Ohio appellate law. The assignments of error were all overruled and the judgement of the trial court was affirmed.
III. CALIFORNIA COURT FOCUSES ON MINIMIZING POTENTIAL FOR PREJUDICE WHEN 11 AND 13-YEAR-OLD GIRLS TESTIFY WITH SUPPORT DOG
California v. Chenault, D064276, 2014 Cal.App.LEXIS 642 (Cal.App.Dist.4, 2014).
Darrell Chenault was convicted of 13 counts of lewd acts on a child under 14 years of age. He was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison. On appeal he contended that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing a support dog to be present during the testimony of two child witnesses without individualized showings of necessity, and that the presence of the dog was inherently prejudicial and violated his federal constitutional rights to a fair trial and to confront the witnesses against him. The appellate court affirmed. Although acknowledging other courts had used the term “facility dog,” this court preferred “support dog.”
A. Use of Dog During Trial
After a divorce, Chenault engaged in various sexual acts with his daughters, various other children, and two daughters of his niece, C., born in 1999, and F., born in 2001. The appellate court described the dog’s presence at trial as follows:
At the time of trial, F. was 11 years old and C. was 13 years old. Before trial, the prosecutor filed a trial brief that requested F. and C. be permitted to have a support dog present during their testimony in addition to a support person. Citing the trial court's discretion under [the California Evidence Code], the prosecutor asked the court to allow F. and C., who were under 14 years of age, to use a dog trained in providing support. She represented the dog was "a trained service dog that will not disrupt the courtroom and has been inside the court in the past. In fact, the trained service canine sought to be used in this case has been providing support for victims and witnesses in San Diego County for the last several years." She argued: "Young victims are often very nervous and scared to testify on the witness stand. This is quite understandable given the facts and nature of these cases. The use of a support canine would surely aid the victims in giving their testimony. Support canines have proven very effective in making children feel safer to recall past traumatic events, speak in front of strangers, and give clearer testimony." To avoid prejudice to the defendant or distraction of the jury, the prosecutor suggested the support dog walk in with F. and C., sit under the witness stand during their testimony, and then leave with them after they completed their testimony.
The reference to the witnesses being under 14 years of age is made because Chenault was being prosecuted on numerous counts of forcible lewd acts on a child under 14 years of age. The prosecutor’s request was granted by the trial judge, whose expectation was that the dog would be as inconspicuous to the jury as possible.
I would expect that the K-9's presence, so to speak, would be limited to actually accompanying [F.] and [C.] to the witness stand and then kind of playing lap dog at their feet. But one thing I don't want is for [F.] and/or [C.] and said support animal to be wandering the hallway out here on any recesses with pats on the head by everyone [who] loves dogs, including jurors.
Chenault’s attorney objected at trial that the witnesses were not “little kids,” but rather 11 and 13, had already talked to police, social workers, and the prosecutor without the presence of a dog, and had testified at a preliminary hearing without a dog, though it had been requested. The request had been denied at the preliminary hearing, according to the defense counsel, who suggested that support people be used instead.
The trial judge said he was sensitive to defense counsel’s concerns but, according to the record, stated, “I’ve also seen the support animals in operation, and I know how stressful testifying in an environment such as this usually is, especially for children of a tender age.” The fact the children had told their stories over and over “perhaps is an argument in favor of a support animal rather than against it.” The judge said he would caution the jurors, and allowed the dog to accompany the two witnesses during the trial. He anticipated calling a recess before the testimony of F. and C. so that the witnesses could enter the courtroom with the dog and its handler “through the back hallway. After the witness took the stand with the support dog, the jury would reenter the courtroom.” The judge felt this procedure minimized, if not it did not eliminate, “any untoward prejudice.”
The prosecutor informed the court that the dog’s handler would be seated where the dog could see the handler to assure that it would not stand up or otherwise misbehave. When F. took the stand, defense counsel complained about the dog’s location, but the judge said that the dog had to be where it was because of its size and because of the limited space available. The appellate court presumed for purposes of the appeal that the dog was within sight of the jurors during the testimony.
At the beginning of his examination of F., the judge informed the jury that F. was accompanied by “a service animal, companion dog, whose [name] happens to be Asta.” The appellate court states that the trial “record does not reflect any problems caused by the support dog during F.’s testimony.” Nor did the appellate court find any problem in the trial record regarding the use of the dog during C.’s testimony. In the opinion of the author of these comments, it might have been best not to give the dog’s name as this can allow people, such as jurors, to begin to personalize their relationship with a dog.
B. Support Persons under California Law
The appellate court concluded that California Penal Code §868.5, which provides for the presence of support persons for witnesses in certain circumstances, “does not apply to the presence of therapy or support dogs…. Rather, a trial court has authority under Evidence Code section 765 to allow the presence of a therapy or support dog during a witness’s testimony.” For both parts of this finding the court cited Spence, discussed below. The appellate court applied an “abuse of discretion standard in reviewing the trial court’s exercise of its authority under Evidence Code section 765.”
The court noted that California case law on Penal Code § 868.5 has consistently rejected arguments that the presence of support persons “is inherently prejudicial, erodes the presumption of innocence, and impermissibly encroaches on confrontation clause and due process rights.” The court did “not believe that the presence of a support dog is inherently more prejudicial than the presence of a support person,” citing the New York case of Tohom, discussed below.
Defense counsel felt that “the one sided deployment of a universally beloved animal distracts the jury from a dispassionate review of the evidence and unfairly bolsters the prosecution’s case by aligning witnesses with a powerful symbol of trustworthiness and vouching for their credibility as victims.” The court acknowledged that in certain circumstances “a support dog might cause a jury to consider impermissible factors in deciding a defendant’s guilt,” but said that such a scenario would be rare.
C. No Requirement for Individualized Showings of Necessity
Chenault argued that “individualized showings of necessity” should have been required for F. and C. before the support dog could be present in the courtroom. The appellate court concluded however that “a case-specific finding that an individual witness needs the presence of a support dog is not required by the federal Constitution,” for which Tohom was again cited. Rather, a facts and circumstances analysis required only that the trial court—
should consider the particular facts of the case and the circumstances of each individual witness and determine whether the presence of a support dog would assist or enable that witness to testify without undue harassment or embarrassment and provide complete and truthful testimony. In so doing, the court should focus on whether the presence of the specific support dog would likely assist or enable the individual witness to give complete and truthful testimony by reducing the stress or trauma the witness may experience while testifying in court or otherwise minimizing undue harassment or embarrassment. If the trial court finds the presence of a support dog would likely assist or enable the individual witness to give complete and truthful testimony and the record supports that finding, the court generally will act within its discretion under Evidence Code section 765 by granting a request for the presence of the support dog when that witness testifies.
Nevertheless, the court stated that “we believe the appropriate standard should be whether the presence of a support dog would assist or enable that witness to completely and truthfully testify without undue harassment or embarrassment.”
As to whether the trial court adequately considered all relevant issues before allowing the presence of the dog, the appellate court stated:
Based on our review of the record, we conclude the trial court made implicit findings that the presence of Asta, the support dog, would assist or enable F. and C. to testify completely and truthfully without undue harassment or embarrassment. The court also took measures to reduce any possible prejudice to Chenault by setting forth logistics for the entry, positioning, and departure of the support dog, along with F. and C., during jury recesses so the dog was as unobtrusive and least disruptive as reasonably possible.
The court noted that Spence had referred to “implied findings of necessity,” and Dye had spoken of an implicit finding of necessity, so the implicit findings of the trial court in Chenault were adequate to allow the presence of the dog. It might be better, in the opinion of this commenter, for court’s to make such findings explicit before allowing a dog, regardless of where the burden is placed and what that burden is.
D. Effort to Minimize Prejudice
The appellate court said that the trial court should take measures to reduce possible prejudice from use of the dog by making its presence—
as unobtrusive and least disruptive to the proceedings as reasonably possible. The court may have the jury recess while the witness takes the stand and the support dog enters and is positioned, and then recess again before the witness and dog leave the courtroom. In certain physical courtroom settings, it may be possible to have the support dog lie on the floor near the witness, entirely out of the jurors' view. If not, the support dog should be positioned, if possible, so its presence is not significantly distracting to the jurors.
If the jury becomes aware of the dog, then—
it generally will be the preferred practice for the court to give an appropriate admonishment to the jury to avoid, or at least minimize, any potential prejudice to the defendant. For example, the court may admonish the jury that it should disregard the dog's presence and decide the case based solely on the evidence presented, should not consider the witness's testimony to be any more or less credible because of the dog's presence, and should not be biased either for or against the witness, the prosecution, or the defendant based on the dog’s presence.
If prejudice cannot be eliminated, or at least reduced sufficiently to avoid infringing on the defendant’s constitutional rights, the court should deny the request for use of the dog. The California appellate court specifically rejected the position of the Supreme Court of the State of Washington in Dye, discussed below, that put a burden on the prosecution to prove that a special dispensation for a vulnerable witness is necessary.
Finally, the appellate court determined that even if allowing the dog to be present were to be held to be error, that error was harmless because it was not reasonably probable the defendant would have obtained a more favorable verdict had the error not occurred.
IV. CONNECTICUT APPELLATE COURT SAYS PROSECUTION HAD TO ESTABLISH NECESSITY FOR SPECIAL PROCEDURE
Connecticut v. Devon, 150 Conn.App. 514, 90 A.3d 383 (2014).
The defendant and his girlfriend had three children, whose identities are disguised as letters, GF for the girlfriend, C1, C2, and C3 for the children, with only the defendant’s first name revealed, Devon D. Devon D. and GF separated in 2005 but Devon had visitation rights. The criminal allegations as to C1 were explicit:
While trick-or-treating in October, 2009, six year old C1, who was the daughter of GF and the defendant, told GF that the defendant had sexually abused her by putting his "wee-wee" on her stomach and by touching her "private" part with his fingers. They talked about these allegations again the next morning. Several days later, GF told Frieda Griffin, a social worker with the Department of Children and Families …, about C1's allegations. Griffin had been working with the family and had been going to GF's home on a regular basis. GF then contacted the police, and she brought C1 to Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, where C1 participated in two videotaped interviews conducted, on different days, by Erin Byrne, a clinical child interview specialist for the Children's Advocacy Center at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center. C1 told Byrne that the defendant had penetrated her "private" with his fingers and with his penis, which hurt and caused her to bleed, that he attempted to penetrate her "butt" with his penis, that he ejaculated on her several times, and that he forced her and her siblings to watch a pornographic movie. She also told Byrne that the defendant forced her to perform fellatio on him, but she vomited when he ejaculated in her mouth. Additionally, C1 told Byrne that the defendant was upset because she had eaten meat, so he put vinegar in her "privates" and in her ears; he also tried to insert his penis into her ear to clean her flesh and get the "meat" she had eaten out of her body, thus causing her ear to bleed. C1 also told Byrne that the defendant had his clothes off or his pants pulled down during these instances and that many of them occurred in the bedroom.
Devon was charged with one count of sexual assault in the first degree, and two counts of risk of injury to a child based on these allegations. Soon after C1’s revelations, C2, a boy, also described sexual abuse in connection with which Devon was charged with two counts of sexual assault in the first degree, and three counts of risk of injury to a child. C3, another son, also came forth with allegations of sexual abuse, which led to an additional count of sexual abuse and one of risk of injury to a child.
Interviews of the children describing the interactions with their father were conducted by various professionals and videotaped. No physical evidence of abuse was found during examinations of the children, though testimony indicated that this was not necessarily to be expected. Following a trial by jury, Devon was convicted of all charges relating to all three children and sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment to be suspended after 18 years followed by 35 years of probation.
A. Special Procedure Questioned on Appeal
On appeal, Devon asserted that the prosecution as to the charges concerning C1 should have been separated from the charges as to C2 and C3, and that the evidence from C1’s case should not have been cross-admissible as to C2 and C3, an argument the Connecticut Appellate Court accepted as justifying reversal. Devon also argued on appeal that “the court improperly permitted the state to have a dog sit near C1 while she testified to provide comfort and support to her.” The appellate court concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in permitting the use of the dog to comfort and emotionally support C1 while she testified without requiring the state to prove that this special procedure was necessary for this witness. At trial, defense counsel specifically told the trial court he was not making a confrontation clause claim as to the presence of the dog, and the appellate court therefore considered such a claim waived.
During the trial the prosecution had filed a motion for special procedures under Connecticut General Statutes § 54-86g, concerning testimony of a victim of child abuse, which allows for a number of procedures, including taking the testimony of the child in a separate room without a potentially intimidating defendant being present and allowing the child to sit with “an adult who is known to the child and with whom the child feels comfortable.”
The prosecution explained that C1 did not have any concerns about testifying in front of Devon, but that she was concerned about testifying before other people, for which the dog might provide comfort. On a hearing on the motion, a child therapist testified that he had purchase a “service dog” for therapeutic use in his practice. The therapist, David Meyers, stated that he had not used the dog in a courtroom setting but that such a dog could be useful in alleviating anxiety suffered by children.
Meyers further testified that he and the dog had met C1 earlier in the day, spending one hour with her, and that they had visited the courtroom together. Although C1 initially refused to touch the dog and said she was fearful, she soon warmed up to it and then told Meyers that she would feel more comfortable if the dog were with her when she testified in court. Upon questioning by defense counsel, Meyers stated that he was unaware of any studies that had determined that the testimony of a witness would be more reliable or truthful if a therapeutic dog were present during the testimony.
This is an important observation in that the phenomenon of facility dogs should be studied in a rigorous scientific manner both as to their effects on witnesses and on juries.
B. Inherent General Discretionary Authority, but No Statutory Authority
The trial court concluded that CGS § 54-86g gave it discretion to allow use of the dog, with any potential prejudice cured by proper instructions to the jury. The appellate court determined, however, that the section “as currently written does not give the court the specific authority to allow the presence of a dog while a child witness testifies and that, although the court has the inherent discretion to allow the use of comfort tools,” this situation was an abuse of discretion without a “proper prior showing that C1 needed the presence of the dog when she testified.” The court noted that the statute does not list “use of a live dog … as a special procedure.” The court also observed that it had previously held that the statute did not cover a child witness holding a stuffed animal while testifying. State v. McPhee, 58 Conn. App. 501, 755 A.2d 893, cert. denied, 254 Conn. 920, 759 A.2d 1026 (2000).
Despite the absence of statutory authority for permitting a facility dog, the appellate court did conclude that the trial court had “inherent general discretionary authority” to permit such a dog, but also determined that this discretion was abused under the facts of the case. After the court summarized a number of cases where child witnesses had used stuffed animals, as well as cases involving facility dogs (Dye, Tohom, Spence), the court elaborated on the abuse by the trial court stating that this arose because “there was no finding, nor was there a showing, that this special procedure was needed.” Because of this, and the failure to sever the case of C1 from that of C2 and C3, the judgment was reversed and remanded for new trials. (It is to be noted that the appellate court quoted from the introduction of this online article regarding the terminology of facility dogs.)
V. FACILITY DOG ACCOMPANIES ADULT WITNESS DURING TESTIMONY
Washington v. Dye, 309 P.3d 1192 (Wash., 2013)
In 2005, Alesha Lair became romantically involved with Douglas Lare, a neighbor, and moved into Lare’s apartment in 2007, bringing along her sister, mother, and mother’s boyfriend. Douglas Lare suffers from developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Kallman Syndrome, and mild mental retardation. He is an adult but functions at a mental age between 6 and 12 years old. Alesha opened credit cards in Lare’s name and charged them to their limits, buying herself and her family clothing, shoes, computers, beer, cigarettes, a DVD player, and cell phones. She also withdrew money from Lare’s retirement account. She then moved out and used Lare’s money to furnish a new apartment with her other romantic involvement, Timothy Dye. In total, according to the Washington State Supreme Court, she borrowed approximately $42,000 against credit cards in Lare’s name and withdrew $59,000 from Lare’s retirement account. Alesha Lair pled guilty to theft in the first degree with aggravating circumstances.
Timothy Dye also took advantage of Douglas Lare. Lare woke one night to find Dye rummaging through his apartment. Dye asked if he could take a DVD player and VCR. When Lare refused, Dye nevertheless took some DVDs and a shelving unit. Lare came home from work the following day to find his television, VCR, DVD player, microwave, and a collectible knife were missing. Dye admitted to a police detective that he had pawned Lare’s DVD player but claimed Lare had voluntarily offered it to him. After the burglaries, Lare installed three locks on his front door and began sleeping with mace, a frying pan, and two knives.
Dye was charged with residential burglary. During Lare’s defense interview, he had been accompanied by a facility dog, Ellie, a Golden Retriever used by the prosecutor in King County, Washington, to comfort children giving statements or providing testimony. The dog was trained by and lives with the prosecutor who prosecuted Dye. The Washington Supreme Court noted that the dog had been referred to in various proceedings as a comfort dog or a therapy dog, but that the appellate court had preferred “facility dog.” The Supreme Court decided to use the same term.
A. Request for Facility Dog at Trial
The prosecution moved to allow Ellie to accompany Lare when he testified. Dye’s counsel said she did not object to Ellie’s presence if Dye could hold his baby when he testified. The trial court granted the prosecution’s motion, but said that Dye would need a similar disability to hold a baby while testifying. Dye’s counsel also objected that Ellie might inflame Dye’s allergies or distract the jury. The court said that it might accommodate Dye’s allergies if it received medical documentation of their existence. Apparently no documentation was provided. The Supreme Court described Ellie’s presence during the trial:
Ellie sat with Lare during his testimony and accompanied him to the restroom. Lare also fed Ellie treats and used Ellie as a table while reading an exhibit. Ellie's presence is not otherwise indicated in the record except for her introduction at the beginning of Lare's testimony:
Q. ... . Who's your friend there with you?
A. This is Ellie.
Q. And why is Ellie there with you?
A. Ellie is to help me and to make it easier for me. And I have treats here.
…. At the end of the trial, the court instructed the jury not to "make any assumptions or draw any conclusions based on the presence of this service dog."
Dye was convicted of residential burglary. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. Dye then appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court, arguing that Ellie’s presence violated his right to due process and a fair trial.
B. Washington State Supreme Court Analysis
The Washington State Supreme Court found only two published cases on point, Tohom and Spence, both discussed below. The Court noted that a prior state appellate decision, Washington v. Hakimi, 124 Wn.App. 15, 98 P.3d 809 (2004), had allowed two young girls who may have been molested to carry dolls to the witness stand. The Court cited a number of similar cases from around the country and noted that courts have split as to whether (1) the prosecution must prove that the special measure is necessary to secure the witness’s testimony, or (2) the defendant must prove that the special measure would create prejudice or be improper. In Hakimi, the Washington appellate court did not impose an explicit necessity test but, according to the Supreme Court, “relied on a record that clearly indicated that the witness would have difficulty testifying in the absence of the comfort item or support person.”
The Court determined that it would “not overrule the trial court’s exercise of discretion unless the record fails to reveal the party’s reasons for needing a support animal, or if the record indicates that the trial court failed to consider those reasons.” The Court stated that a trial court abuses its discretion only if one of the following is true:
- The decision is manifestly unreasonable, falling outside the range of acceptable choices given the facts and the applicable legal standard.
- The decision is based on untenable grounds, i.e., factual findings are unsupported by the record.
- The decision is based on untenable reasons, i.e., an incorrect standard or facts that do not meet the requirements of the correct standard were applied.
As to whether the trial court’s decision was “manifestly unreasonable,” the Court found that “there is no actual evidence on the record that Ellie had the effect of distracting the jury, damaging the presumption of Dye’s innocence, or otherwise tainting the proceedings.” The Court noted:
It is the responsibility of a party alleging error to create a record of that error. If Dye's counsel had seen Ellie jump on Lare, make a defensive posture toward Dye, or engage in other prejudicial behavior, she could have noted such behavior for the record, or even asked the court to remove Ellie from the witness stand momentarily. Counsel did not.
As to “untenable grounds,” the Court found that the trial court’s findings regarding Douglas Hare’s disabilities were “well supported by the record,” as were its findings that Ellie would be very unobtrusive. The Court noted that the record did not indicate that Ellie disrupted the proceedings, left Lare’s side, or growled at Dye in such a way as to make him look dangerous or untrustworthy. Therefore, “the trial court did not rely on untenable grounds.”
As to “untenable reasons,” the Court noted that the trial court was aware of Lare’s significant anxiety regarding his testimony, his significant emotional trauma, and his developmental disability. The Court concluded: “Because the trial court held a hearing on the permissibility of Ellie's presence, and because the record showed why Ellie's presence was needed to facilitate Lare's testimony, the trial court did not rely on untenable reasons.” No showing of “substantial need” or “compelling necessity” was required, though the prosecution did have a “burden to prove that a special dispensation for a vulnerable witness is necessary.”
The Court said that “whatever subconscious bias may have befallen the jury was cured by the trial court's limiting instruction, which cautioned the jury not to ‘make any assumptions or draw any conclusions based on the presence of this service dog.’” The Court held that Dye had failed to establish that his fair trial rights were violated and that any possible “prejudice that resulted from Ellie’s presence was minor and largely mitigated by the limiting instruction the trial court gave.” Therefore, the trial court had not abused its discretion and the appellate decision, and hence the conviction, was affirmed. (One legal commenter, Kaiser above, found the Washington Supreme Court’s reasoning regarding facility dogs preferable to that of other courts and recommended that it become the standard for Pennsylvania.)
C. Visibility of the Dog to the Jury
Marianne Dellinger noted in the article cited previously that “the dog and the witness could be required to enter the courtroom before the jury, and the dog would remain out of the jury’s sight.” The picture here shows Lare in the witness box with Ellie at his feet. The dog was visible during testimony only to jurors sitting at one end of the jury box. The picture was not taken during the trial, but during a subsequent interview that took place in the courtroom, and is supplied courtesy of Ellen O’Neill-Stephens.
D. Application of Dye to Adult Victim of Domestic Violence
A Washington State Court of Appeals decision issued in May 2014 allowed a “service dog” to accompany an adult victim of domestic violence to the stand when she testified against her husband, Duane Allen Moore, who had been charged with second degree assault with a domestic violence special allegation. In Washington v. Moore, 2014 Wash. App. LEXIS 1186 (May 13, 2014), Moore’s wife, Sabrina Moore, was accompanied during her testimony by a dog named Keris, referred to in the appellate opinion as a service dog, but in the appellant’s brief as a “service or comfort dog.” The dog’s training and its relationship with the witness (i.e., as a facility dog, a service dog, or a pet that provided comfort) received no elaboration either by the appellate court or in the briefs of the parties.
The prosecutor had moved to allow Ms. Moore to be accompanied by the dog because she “was nervous and scared about testifying….” Defense counsel at trial made no objection. The appellate court stated that because the defendant failed to raise at trial any objections regarding the dog’s presence as a violation of his right of confrontation, the issue had not been preserved on appeal absent a showing of constitutional error with “practical and identifiable consequences at trial.” The appellate court found “no evidence in the record that the dog’s presence made Ms. Moore appear traumatized or victimized, and thereby violated Mr. Moore’s due process rights, or acted as a comment on the evidence.” Thus, the failure to object to the use of the dog at trial meant that there was no foundation for an appeal on the issue, which was fatal to defendant’s arguments that the presence of the dog prevented an effective face-to-face confrontation with the witness.
Given that the decision is essentially procedural, it is difficult to say whether Washington has accepted that a dog can accompany an adult witness without establishing any disability other than fear of an abusive husband. If this situation had been accepted as a substantive argument, it would indicate a substantial broadening of the use of facility dogs at trials.
VI. FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD SEXUAL ABUSE VICTIM ACCOMPANIED BY THERAPY DOG WHEN TESTIFYING AGAINST HER FATHER
New York v. Tohom, 969 N.Y.S.2d 123 (N.Y. App. Div., 2d Dept. 2013)
The Appellate Division, Second Department, of the New York Supreme Court ruled that a “therapeutic comfort dog” could provide emotional support to a crime victim during testimony against an individual, Victor Tohom, charged with predatory sexual assault against a child, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. The acts of sexual misconduct were stated by the prosecution to have occurred from the summer of 2006 to November 2010 with his daughter, who had been born in 1995. During that period, the victim twice became pregnant and the defendant arranged for abortions.
Prosecutors sought, in May 12, 2011, to allow a Golden Retriever named Rose to accompany the child on the witness stand while she testified. Rose had proven useful during interviews and therapy sessions with the child and, according to a therapist, allowed the victim to be “more verbal.” The girl had expressed anxiety about testifying. Her therapist said the dog would help to alleviate the apprehension, as well as reducing the psychological and emotional trauma that might result from testifying against her father.
The prosecutors acknowledged the absence of case law or statutory authority for use of a specialized dog but did note that there was New York precedent for allowing the use of a teddy bear. New York v. Gutkaiss, 206 A.D.2d 628, 614 N.Y.S.2d 599 (App. Div., 3rd Dept. 1994) They also cited Criminal Procedure Law provisions regarding special witnesses and pointed to Executive Law §642-a, which allows a person supportive of a special witness to be “present and accessible” during testimony by such a witness. (This statute is part of Article 23 of the New York Executive Law, Fair Treatment Standards for Crime Victims.)
Defense counsel argued that the dog would prejudice the jury against the defendant and would convey to the jury that the witness was under stress as a result of testifying and that this stress resulted from telling the truth. They also argued that at the time of testifying, the girl was 15 years old, while prior cases “overwhelmingly” involved preteen witnesses. (But see Spence, Dye, Moore, and Chenault, discussed herein.)
A social worker provided some history regarding the victim. The girl had spent the first ten years of her life in Guatemala, where she was raised by her maternal grandparents. At her father’s request, she was sent to the United States and began to live with her father, having “virtually no contact with her mother.” The social worker testified that having the girl testify in open court would retraumatize her.
The prosecution argued that Rose had been trained since the age of eight weeks “to sense stress and anxiety and act in such a way to help reduce” such stress and anxiety by raising herself up and offering herself to the person experiencing them. The defense was willing to allow the social worker to be in the courtroom directly behind the witness stand but requested that the dog be kept out.
A. County Court Ruling
The County court allowed Rose to accompany the victim during testimony, determining that the intent of Executive Law § 642-a is “to protect children under 16 years of age who are victimized by crime,” so use of the dog was appropriate. Before the girl’s testimony, the judge explained to the jury that she would be accompanied by a “companion dog,” but that the jury was not to “draw any inference either favorably or negatively from either side because of the dog’s presence.” The jury was also cautioned in this regard prior to beginning deliberation.
The defendant was convicted on both the felony and misdemeanor charges and sentenced to imprisonment for 25 years to life on the felony and one year of incarceration on the misdemeanor, the sentences to run concurrently. The defense moved to set aside the verdict, basing the motion partially on the fact that the Executive Law did not explicitly allow for the dog’s presence. The County Court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.
B. Issues on Appeal
The defense reiterated some of its objections made at trial on appeal and added others, including arguing that the trial court was required to make a finding of necessity before allowing the use of the dog. The appellate court held that, since this argument was not raised before the County Court, it was “unpreserved for appellate review.” In any case, the argument was found to be without merit because Executive Law § 642-a does not set forth any necessity criterion.
The appellate court agreed that there was no explicit statutory provision allowing for the use of therapeutic comfort animals but noted that the general intent of Executive Law § 642-a addressed “the emotional stress which a child victim might endure as a result of his or her necessary involvement with criminal proceedings.” Although that section speaks primarily of a “child witness,” which is defined in the Civil Procedure Law (190.32(1)(a)) as a person 12 years old or less, there is also a reference to a “special witness,” which is defined (190.32(1)(b)(ii)) as “a person …who is [m]ore than twelve years old and who is likely to suffer very severe emotional or mental stress if required to testify in person concerning any crime….” Elsewhere (CPL 65.00), a child witness is allowed to be as old as 14. Materials accompanying the legislative package that resulted in enactment of § 642-a referred to the provision as covering individuals as old as 16. The appellate court concluded that the County Court correctly ruled that this provision allowed the dog to accompany the victim during testimony.
All four judges of the appellate court panel joined in the opinion of Judge Sandra L. Sgroi. The County Court had agreed with prosecutor that Gutkaiss, where a child witness had been allowed to hold a teddy bear while testifying, was relevant in resolving the legal issues. The appellate court noted similar decisions regarding comfort items and animals in other jurisdictions and stated that—
[W]e perceive no rational reason why, as per the broad dictate of Executive Law § 642-a(4), a court’s exercise of sensitivity should not be extended to allow the use of a comfort dog where it has been shown that such animal can ameliorate the psychological and emotional stress of the testifying child witness.
The defense argued that Rose’s accompaniment of the witness was prejudicial. The appellate court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had dealt with prejudice in Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560 (1986), where the Court had stated that “if the challenged practice is not found inherently prejudicial and if the defendant fails to show actual prejudice, the inquiry is over.” The appellate court also noted:
[T]he defendant admits that Rose was trained merely to respond to a person's stress level. It is beyond dispute that a dog does not have the ability to discern truth from falsehood and, thus, cannot communicate such a distinction to a jury. Nor can it be concluded that any actual prejudice resulted from the concededly unobtrusive presence of the dog in the courtroom.
There was no discussion as to whether adjustments could have been made to the witness stand to prevent the jury from seeing the dog. In any case, the defendant in the New York case had, according to the appellate court, failed to show that Rose’s presence was inherently prejudicial.
The New York appellate court also summarized Dye (the appellate decision, not the Washington State Supreme Court decision discussed above) and Spence, discussed below, as well as rejecting an argument that the presence of the dog had interfered with the defendant’s right to confront a witness against him. As to an argument made at trial that the County Court should have conducted a Frye hearing to determine that use of the dog in the courtroom had a scientific basis, the appellate court said that this issue had not been preserved for appellate review and was without merit. The court cited an article in which Andrew Leaser had stated: “There is already a significant amount of research showing that the mere presence of a dog can have dramatic emotional and psychological benefits.” Andrew Leaser, See Spot Mediate: Utilizing the Emotional and Psychological Benefits of ‘Dog Therapy’ in Victim-Offender Mediation, 20 Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 943, 961 (2005).
In affirming the judgment of the County Court, the New York appellate court summarized its findings as follows:
Under the circumstances of this case, the County Court properly allowed Rose, the comfort-therapy dog, to accompany the child victim/witness on the witness stand during her testimony. The defendant has not shown that this accommodation was impermissible under Executive Law § 642–a; or that it impaired his right to a fair trial; or that it compromised his constitutional right of confrontation and cross-examination.
This case is largely an interpretation of the latitude allowed a trial judge with a child or special witness under a New York statute, but could be relevant to other jurisdictions considering how broadly to interpret victim protection statutes in allowing facility dogs to accompany victims to the stand.
VII. VICTIM ADVOCATE AND THERAPY DOG ACCOMPANY CHILD ABUSE WITNESS ON STAND
California v. Spence, 212 Cal.App.4th 478, 151 Cal.Rptr.3d 374 (Cal.App.Dist.4, 2012)
James Spence was convicted of sexual offenses involving a child ten years old or younger and sentenced to 55 years to life. Spence had engaged in sexual activities with the daughter of a roommate, for whom he acted as a stepfather. Among arguments he made on appeal was that the trial court erred in allowing, in addition to a support person, a “therapy dog or support canine to be present at the child’s feet while she testified….” The support person was a victim advocate from the District Attorney’s office.
A. Support Person for Witness in California Statutory Law
California Penal Code §§ 868.5 and 868.8 provide, in prosecutions for certain crimes including those involved here, that judges may alter normal courtroom procedures for prosecution witnesses with a disability or who are under eleven years old, including allowing them to be accompanied by a support person. Spence contended that allowing the presence of the therapy dog was “‘overkill’ that unduly focused the jury upon the child’s alleged status as a victim, before any conviction was achieved.”
As to support persons, Penal Code § 868.5 specifically provides:
Notwithstanding any other law, a prosecuting witness [in specified crimes, including molestation] shall be entitled, for support, to the attendance of up to two persons of his or her own choosing, one of whom may be a witness, at the preliminary hearing and at the trial … during the testimony of the prosecuting witness. Only one of those support persons may accompany the witness to the witness stand, although the other may remain in the courtroom during the witness’ testimony. (emphasis added)
The court briefly discussed the terminology regarding the dog in the case:
The court and parties at trial referred to the dog as a courtroom or canine therapy dog. Although the Attorney General now prefers to use the term “courthouse facility dog,” and seeks to have us address victim protection issues in a wider context, we need not and cannot expand the record and the issues in that way. Since the term “canine therapy dog” is somewhat redundant, we will refer to the dog in this case as a therapy dog or a support canine.
B. Prosecutor Requests Use of Both Support Person and Therapy Dog
The prosecutor requested that the therapy dog and the victim advocate accompany the child to the witness stand because “Spence's family was going to be present and there were concerns that D. might have an emotional meltdown and refuse to testify, since it could be a terrifying situation for her.” Defense counsel suggested that the victim advocate and the therapy dog be kept nearby, perhaps in the jury room.
The appellate decision described the trial court’s approach to the question of prejudice in the use of a specialized dog during a trial:
[The trial court] commented that there would be no prejudice in allowing the therapy dog to be present in the courtroom. The court said it was comparable to D. holding a “cute teddy bear in her hands” to provide her comfort. The court explained to counsel that this particular therapy dog had been in the same courtroom before, “and she's almost unnoticeable once everybody takes their seat on the stand. She's very well-behaved and does nothing but simply sit there. And so if that does make it easier for [D.] to testify, I am going to allow it.” However, if any issues or improper behavior by the therapy dog occurred, it would be removed from the courtroom. The record does not show any such problems arose.
The jury was informed that the child witness would be entering through the back door rather than the front entrance to the courtroom. The prosecutor noted for the record that the witness would be “accompanied by a victim advocate named Norie Figueroa from our office and a canine therapy dog.”
C. California Appellate Review
The California appellate court referred to the Washington State appellate decision in Dye (i.e., the decision that was affirmed by the Washington Supreme Court, as discussed above), noting some factors in that case that were relevant to the prosecution of Spence:
The court relied on several factors to find there was no error in that procedure, such as: (a) the court's discretion to control courtroom proceedings and witness examination, (b) the absence of any claim of interference by the dog's presence with the defendant's right to confront and cross-examine the victim-witness; (c) the lack of any indication the dog's presence alone communicated to the jury any presupposition of this witness's “very victimhood;” (d) the absence of any indication there had been any improper gifts or favors in this respect from the prosecutor to the victim-witness.
The California appellate court also noted that the trial court in Dye had instructed the jury not to make any assumptions or draw any conclusions from the presence of the service dog. The Washington appellate court analogized the presence of the therapy dog to the use of stuffed animals by child victims in sexual abuse cases, but the California appellate court declined “to use that analogy in this case, which presents a more specialized issue.” Thus, not all courts have accepted analogies of facility dogs to stuffed animals, toys, or blankets.
In considering whether allowing both a therapy dog and a victim advocate to accompany a witness to the stand contravened Penal Code § 868.5, quoted above, the court noted:
[I]t is easy to conclude that therapy dogs are not “persons” within the meaning of section 868.5, setting limitations on the number of “persons” who may accompany a witness to the witness stand. Moreover, since subdivision (b) of section 868.5 refers to the court's duty to give admonitions under section 868.5 that the advocate must not sway or influence the witness, we cannot imagine that the Legislature intended that a therapy dog be so admonished, nor could any dog be sworn as a witness in this context, so as to invoke the limitation on the number of support persons who may accompany a testifying witness to the stand. In any case, the trial court took care to ensure that the therapy dog would be mainly unnoticeable once everybody took their seats, and that corrective action would be taken if there was a problem, which there was not.
Therefore, the court found that the Penal Code did not preclude the use of a therapy dog with a child witness and that allowing the dog to be present during the child’s testimony was within the trial judge’s discretion. The court found no prejudicial error or abuse of discretion. Rejecting other assignments of error, the conviction was affirmed.
The California decision is based in significant part on specific statutes that will not apply in other states. Nevertheless, for states that have allowed, whether by statute or under general concepts of judicial latitude, trained individuals to accompany children or vulnerable witnesses during testimony, this case provides effective arguments regarding the additional presence of a facility dog.
D. Habeas Petition Denied
A 2015 habeas petition by Spence failed in the federal district court for the Southern District of California, Spence v. Beard, No. 14cv1624-BAS, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56280 (SD Cal. 2015). Spence claimed he had been denied due process when the trial court allowed the child to have both a therapy dog and a support advocate accompany her to the witness stand during her trial testimony. The federal district court found this argument without merit, noting that it appeared from the record that the dog sat at the child’s feet and “was unobtrusive.” There was no showing that the presence of the therapy dog adversely influenced the jury, and there was no evidence that use of the dog “so fundamentally infected the trial process as to violate the petitioner’s due process rights.”
VIII. ILLINOIS STATUTE ALLOWS JUDGES TO SET CONDITIONS FOR USE OF DOGS IN SEX CRIME PROSECUTIONS; SPECIFIES DOGS MUST BE GRADUATES OF ADI-MEMBER PROGRAMS
As already mentioned, statutes on facility dogs, as with cases, will be discussed from most recently enacted so that readers familiar with prior versions of this article will not have to read through previously posted materials to get to the latest developments. In July 2015 Illinois adopted Public Act 99-0094, amending Article 106B of the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which concerns victims of sexual abuse. New Section 106B-10 of that Article provides “Conditions for testimony by a victim who is a child or a moderately, severely, or profoundly intellectually disabled person or a person affected by a developmental disability.” The new provision states that in taking the testimony of such an individual, a court may set conditions “involving the use of a facility dog in any proceeding involving” certain offenses, specifically “criminal sexual assault, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse, or aggravated criminal sexual abuse.” A judge considering whether to permit “the child or person to testify with the assistance of a facility dog” is to take into consideration “the rights of the parties to the litigation, and any other relevant factor that would facilitate the testimony by the child or the person”
The final sentence is very specific as to what kind of dog can be used: “As used in this Section, ‘facility dog’ means a dog that is a graduate of an assistance dog organization that is a member of Assistance Dogs International.” Note that this wording does not require that the dog be trained to be a facility dog, to assist a child or “intellectually disabled person,” but rather that the dog is a graduate of an organization that is a member of ADI. Thus, a dog trained to be a hearing dog, a mobility impairment dog, or for any other kind of assistance work recognized by programs that are members of ADI would appear to satisfy the statutory requirement.
If an organization must be a member of Assistance Dogs International to train a dog that can be used in a courtroom under the new provision, judges may at some point be asked to accept dogs that have been trained by organizations that are not full members of ADI, but rather candidate members. In this connection it may be worth noting that when the Department of Veterans Affairs proposed rules specifying that the agency’s funding of service dogs for veterans would be restricted to dogs trained by ADI member organizations, I had asked, in commenting on the proposal, whether dogs trained by candidate organizations could satisfy VA requirements. The VA, in the preamble to the final regulations replied: “We clarify for one commenter that VA only intends to recognize those service dog organizations that have full membership in ADI or IGDF, or that are fully ADI or IGDF accredited, versus those organizations in the process of becoming ADI or IGDF accredited” (77 Fed. Reg. 54368, 54372, September 5, 2012). Defense counsel should consider this issue if objections are raised concerning the use of a dog during testimony in Illinois.
IX. ARKANSAS STATUTE REQUIRES TWO YEARS OF TRAINING WITH SPECIAL EMPHASIS ON WORK IN COURT
In April 2015, Arkansas adopted Act 957, The Courthouse Dogs Child Witness Support Act, adding section 16-43-1002 to code provisions regarding the testimony of minors and providing for the use of facility dogs with child witnesses. A “certified facility dog” has:
(A) Graduated from a program of an assistance dog organization that is a member of Assistance Dogs International or a similar nonprofit organization that attempts to set the highest standard of training for dogs for the purpose of reducing stress in a child witness by enhancing the ability of the child witness to speak in a judicial proceeding by providing emotional comfort in a high stress environment;
(B) Received two (2) years of training; and
(C) Passed the same public access test as a service dog.
The wording of (A) follows the webpage standards provided by Assistance Dogs International (http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/standards/assistance-dogs/standards-for-dogs/training-standards-for-facility-dogs/), although ADI’s facility dog training standards do not, at least on the webpage, contain a two-year training requirement. It is to be noted that therapy dogs that are, with their handlers, registered as teams with national therapy dog organizations, can begin work after passing a qualification test, which many do without having received two years of training. Although the author’s dog, registered with the author by a national therapy dog organization, did receive two years of training, about half of that was after passing the test. Also, the training was not “for the purpose of reducing stress in a child witness…”, so presumably most therapy dogs would not qualify as facility dogs under Arkansas statutory law.
A. Handler Requirements
Act 957 also provides handler requirements:
“Certified handler” means a person who has received training from an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International, the American Kennel Club, Therapy Dogs Incorporated, or an equivalent organization on offering the person's animal for assistance purposes and has received additional training on the protocols and policies of courts, the expected roles of the person's animal assistance team, and the expected interaction so as not to interfere with the collection of evidence or the effective administration of justice….
Thus a handler who has received training from ADI, TD Inc., or an equivalent organization (presumably a guide dog organization or the other national therapy dog organizations), would have to get “additional training on the protocols and policies of courts, the expected roles of the person’s animal assistance team, and the expected interaction….” It is unclear if the AKC and TD Inc. are also “equivalent organizations” with regard to handling only, or also with regard to organizations that may train a certified facility dog. As worded, this at least indicates that the dog and the trainer do not necessarily need to have the same background in training. Thus, a dog trained by an ADI-member organization could presumably be paired with a handler whose education in handling dogs was a therapy dog organization. This may envision a situation where dogs will be trained by ADI members as a commercial activity, but made available to purchase by individuals interested in providing such facility dog services in various regions of the country, with those handlers sometimes trained as therapy dog handlers. Whether a handler who happens to be a lawyer (such as the author) could qualify is unclear, though as already noted, the author’s therapy dog would not qualify as a “certified facility dog” in any case.
The Act also defines “child witness:”
“Child witness” means a witness testifying in a criminal hearing or trial whose age at the time of his or her testimony is eighteen 11 (18) years of age or younger.
B. Motion to Allow Use of Facility Dog
Thus, the Act concerns only criminal trials. A child witness in a civil suit against the perpetrator of an abuse would not seem to have any right under the statute. The statute provides that under certain circumstances a child witness is to “be afforded the opportunity to have a certified facility dog accompany him or her while testifying in court.” The circumstances are (1) a request by either party in a criminal trial or hearing, and (2) the availability of a certified facility dog in “the jurisdiction of the judicial district in which the criminal case is being adjudicated.” This would not seem to exclude bringing in a facility dog from another state, provided the dog and presumably the handler could be determined to be in the criminal court’s jurisdiction at the time of the testimony. The party (i.e., prosecution or conceivably defense) seeking to use the dog with a child witness is to file a motion with the court certifying the following:
(1) The credentials of the certified facility dog;
(2) That the certified facility dog is adequately insured;
(3) That a relationship has been established between the child witness and the certified facility dog in anticipation of testimony; and
(4) That the presence of the certified facility dog may reduce anxiety experienced by the child witness while testifying in the criminal trial or hearing.
Although the author’s coverage under the policy of a national therapy dog organization would probably satisfy the insurance requirement, anyone who gets into the practice of offering such a service with a dog should verify with the insurance company that this would fall within a policy that might be intended to cover other types of incidents. The relationship requirement would mean that the facility dog would have to start working with the child or children involved prior to their testifying. Thus, if a dog is to be brought in from another region of the country, the handler would presumably also be from that other region of the country, and the expense could be considerable. The Act seems to anticipate that such a handler-dog team will begin to be a profession for certain individuals who, with their dogs, expect to be used regularly for this type of work.
It is perhaps worth noting that the Act specifies that either the prosecution or the defense might have use for a facility dog at trial. Some courts have also alluded to such a possibility. Although all opinions have so far concerned dogs used with prosecution witnesses, it is not inconceivable that a child witness for a defendant might have difficulty testifying, perhaps in a situation where someone else might have been responsible for the crime than the defendant, or to testify that the defendant’s involvement in the crime was minor. If the dog is the property of the police or a prosecutor, or within a system primarily known to prosecutors, it must be wondered how easily arrangements will be made.
C. Jury Precautions
The Act specifies certain precautions with regard to the jury. “The jury shall be seated subsequent to the child witness and certified facility dog taking their places in the witness stand.” This is likely designed to assure that the dog is as unobtrusive as possible. There are two more requirements with regard to juries:
(e) In the course of jury selection, with the court’s approval under [Arkansas voir dire rules], either party may voir dire prospective jury members on whether the presence of a certified facility dog to assist a child witness would create undo sympathy for the child witness or in any may serve as a prejudice to the defendant.
(f) In a criminal trial involving a jury in which the certified facility dog is utilized, the court shall present appropriate jury instructions that are designed to prevent prejudice for or against any party.
The ability to voir dire prospective jurors with regard to their reaction to a dog appearing with a child witness indicates that the statute is not requiring that dogs in witness boxes should be invisible wherever possible.
D. New York Proposal
New York State legislators have for several years been proposing similar legislation, referred to as “Rosie’s Law,” with the latest iteration introduced by Senator Hoylman as S.341 (“AN ACT to amend the criminal procedure law, in relation to providing witnesses with facility dogs”). This bill would require that the dog be “a graduate from an assistance dog organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International.” There is no mention of “an equivalent organization,” so national therapy dog organizations, unless subsumed under the authority of ADI, would not be able to train or certify acceptable facility dogs. The Act would cover “vulnerable” witnesses, not just children, but the court must determine “by a preponderance of the evide3nce that it is likely that such witness will be unable to effectively communicate if required to testify without the presence of such facility dog and that the presence of such facility dog will facilitate such testimony.” The bill recognizes that obtaining a dog and handler with the necessary training may be difficult, stating:
The potential unavailability of a facility dog shall not be considered by the court to be prejudicial in any way to either the prosecution or defense. The use of such a dog shall necessarily be determined by the availability and reasonable efforts necessary to secure the assistance of a facility dog. Should the court deem that the securing of an appropriate facility dog would be an unreasonable burden then the testimony of the witness shall proceed without the accommodation of a facility dog.
The more requirements that are placed on the dog and handler, the more difficult will it become for a party in a criminal trial to obtain the services of such a team.
X. FLORIDA STATUTE ON USE OF SERVICE AND THERAPY ANIMALS AS WITNESSES
In 2012, Florida added a provision (Florida Statutes 92.55) regarding service and therapy animals to its evidentiary code, which were revised in 2014. The provision allows a court to provide special protections for a “victim or witness under the age of 16, a person who has an intellectual disability, or a sexual offense victim or witness” on its own motion or on the motion of any party, a parent, guardian, attorney, or guardian ad litem “to protect the victim or witness in any judicial proceeding or other official proceeding from severe emotional or mental harm due to the presence of the defendant if the victim or witness is required to testify in open court.” In addition to other kinds of relief that might be granted (limiting the number of interviews of the victim or witness, prohibiting depositions, requiring submission of questions in advance, etc.), the statute states:
The court may set any other conditions it finds just and appropriate when taking the testimony of a child victim or witness or a sexual offense victim or witness, including the use of a service or therapy animal that has been evaluated and registered according to national standards, in any proceeding involving a sexual offense. When deciding whether to permit a child victim or witness or sexual offense victim or witness to testify with the assistance of a registered service or therapy animal, the court shall consider the age of the child victim or witness, the age of the sexual offense victim or witness at the time the sexual offense occurred, the interests of the child victim or witness or sexual offense victim or witness, the rights of the parties to the litigation, and any other relevant factor that would facilitate the testimony by the child victim or witness or sexual offense victim or witness.
It is not clear what is meant by being evaluated and registered according to national standards. This may mean that the animal would be registered with an organization, such as Therapy Dogs International or a member organization of Assistance Dogs International, i.e., organizations that have national reach in their membership. The training standards of such groups as Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), Therapy Dogs International, and Therapy Dogs Inc. are similar but not identical.
Florida Statutes 413.08 define “service animal” for purposes of the misdemeanor of interference with the use of such an animal, though the term “therapy animal” is not defined outside of the evidentiary statute just discussed. Since the posting of the last version of this article, the definition of service animal in FS 413.08 has been revised to conform to the 2010 regulations of the Department of Justice. The definition now reads as follows:
“Service animal” means an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work done or tasks performed must be directly related to the individual’s disability and may include, but are not limited to, guiding an individual who is visually impaired or blind, alerting an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing, pulling a wheelchair, assisting with mobility or balance, alerting and protecting an individual who is having a seizure, retrieving objects, alerting an individual to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to an individual with a mobility disability, helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, reminding an individual with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming an individual with posttraumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, or doing other specific work or performing other special tasks. A service animal is not a pet. For purposes of subsections (2), (3), and (4), the term “service animal” is limited to a dog or miniature horse….
This definition, although it might not be relied upon by a court in issuing an order protecting a victim or witness in a sexual offense prosecution, raises the interesting possibility that service and therapy horses might be used in a courtroom setting. Miniature horses have been used as service animals, particularly as guides for the visually impaired, for at least a decade and several therapy animal organizations have registered miniature horses for therapy assignments.
The definition of “service animal” does not specify a national standard though, when used by the Department of Justice, the term “service animal” has national application. Thus, the national standard requirement is unique to the courthouse setting in which the animal is to be used. Presumably, a training regimen of an organization with some national recognition would be superimposed on the definition. Given the attitudes of some of the training organizations towards each other, it is to be hoped that Florida judges will be reasonably open to those organizations that have been effective in training service or therapy animals over a significant period of time.
XI. SERVICE DOGS USED BY NON-WITNESS PARTICIPANTS IN TRIALS
In considering possible disruptions that can occur because of the presence of a dog in a courtroom, a few cases involved dogs being used by non-witness participants in trials. A case decided by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia mentioned that a prosecutor had been allowed to use a guide dog and that there had been no objection. The appellate court remarked that “there appears to have been no evaluation whether the presence of the prosecutor’s guide dog and paralegal presented an ‘overriding interest that is likely to be prejudiced’….” The fact that the court considered the possibility of prejudice from the presence of the dog, though neither the defense counsel nor the trial court had done so, may indicate some concern that a prosecutor’s use of a guide dog could be prejudicial. Williams v. U.S., 2012 WL 4006414 (D.C. Ct. of Appeals, 2012).
Press reports have described a chief crime scene investigation supervisor who has testified with her guide dog. (http://www.ncsilc.org/2011/08/30/blind-csi-investigator-honored-by-tv-counterparts-in-marin/) Whether there have been objections to such an appearance by a dog was not stated, but it might be argued that the defense might actually find the proof of the witness’s blindness helpful in cross-examination.
In Leigh v. Florida, 58 So.3d 396 (2011), the judge’s dog was visible to the jury and apparently disruptive:
[T]he jury was aware of the presence of a dog in the courtroom because, on more than one occasion, the presiding judge, the Honorable Susan Lebow, had to correct her dog, which was whining and barking, and on more than one occasion, the dog put its front paws on the swing door that separated it from the courtroom where the judge was presiding, suggesting to the jury that the dog was present for the safety of the court, unnecessarily marking Defendant as a dangerous character.
The Florida appellate court reversed and remanded, with a provision that the trial court could attach portions of the record that would refute the possibility that defense counsel’s failure to object to the dog’s presence indicated ineffective assistance of counsel. Since there was apparently no evidence of the dog’s presence in the record at all, the trial court was presumably obligated to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the matter. Nevertheless, this raises the issue that a disruptive dog, at least one that might be interpreted as guarding a witness or judge, could improperly influence a jury.
XII. SERVICE AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS COMING WITH WITNESSES
In issuing regulations applicable to state and local governmental facilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with specific mention of service animals, the Department of Justice noted in a preamble that courthouses were covered facilities to which service animals would be admitted. (Department of Justice, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services, 75 Fed. Reg. 56164, September 15, 2010.) These references were not specific to courtrooms, much less entering a courthouse for the purpose of being a witness in a criminal matter, and could not be said to impose a blanket requirement on a judge to allow a witness to testify while accompanied by a service animal. Nevertheless, the purpose of the rules could be applied to a witness with a mental disability for which the individual uses a service dog. If, for instance, and individual with PTSD has a tendency to enter an uncommunicative state in situations of stress, and uses a dog in part to reduce the likelihood of this happening, then a strong argument could be made that such an individual should be allowed to remain accompanied by the service dog while testifying. This situation is somewhat analogous to Dye, except that the dog is owned or used on a regular basis by the witness, rather than being supplied on a temporary basis by the prosecutor’s office.
A somewhat more difficult case would involve a dog that is not a service dog but that provides emotional support for an individual with a mental condition. Such dogs, if not trained at the level required to be designated a service animal (28 C.F.R. 35.104, 35.136), would not have access privileges under the Department of Justice regulations applicable to state and local government facilities. Nevertheless, such animals are recognized as having access to airline cabins, in part because the Department of Transportation has acknowledged their value for passengers with documented anxiety or psychological conditions who use such dogs to manage the stress of flying. (14 C.F.R. 382.27, 382.117)
Should such an argument justify admitting an emotional support animal—a pet from the perspective of the Department of Justice—into a witness box? Because of the lack of training required for a service animal, or presumably for the kind of facility dog used in Dye, the dog might not be as inconspicuous as a judge might desire. Nevertheless, if the judge could be assured that the animal would not be disruptive, should it be allowed in the courtroom? Or does this open the floodgates to anyone with some anxiety about being in front of a room of people to bring in a pet, as may have been the case Moore, discussed above? The witness could be required to provide evidence of the condition that necessitates recognition of the animal as distinct from a pet for this purpose, but whether a court would take such an approach will probably have to wait until an actual case arises.
Some of these issues appeared in a recent California case, In re Alameda County Social Services Agency v. Sabrina H; Sabrina H. v. The Superior Court of Alameda, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6400. Here, a juvenile court prevented a mother from bringing a “comfort dog” into the courtroom during hearings on her parental rights. The California appellate court’s summary of this aspect of the case indicates that the dog had been allowed in for several hearings, but had somehow “become an issue.” Citing concerns about the length of the full-day trial and the lack of evidence that mother's dog had any specific training to deal with physical or psychological disabilities, the juvenile court judge gave mother the choice of leaving the dog outside or declining to participate in the hearing. The mother chose to leave the courthouse with her dog.
The juvenile court had requested documentation that the dog was “a service dog rather than an untrained emotional support animal,” and the mother “claimed that she previously had a service dog identification card, but had lost it.” The juvenile court judge stated that “a service dog, as the Court understands it, is a dog that has specific training and has training to deal with whatever the problem may be with its owner, be it psychological, physical, something of this nature. A support dog is a dog that provides psychological support or other types of support for the owner but does not have specific training.” The appellate court also indicated that the mother could have brought someone to keep the dog outside the courtroom so that, apparently, she could have access to it during breaks in court proceedings. The appellate court affirmed the juvenile court’s requirement that there be “appropriate paperwork.” Although an argument could be made that the insistence on documentation by the two courts was misplaced, if the dog had been disruptive, thereby raising a question as to whether it had specific training as to a disability, the juvenile court could appropriately seek evidence that the dog was a service animal. Misbehavior in the courtroom setting would have been strong evidence that the dog was not trained as a service animal, appropriately shifting to the mother the burden of establishing that it was.
It should be noted that the presence of a service dog might also produce an element of bias in a judge or jury. In a study of the effects of service dogs for children with disabilities published over 25 years ago, Mader, Hart, and Bergin considered whether “disabled children in wheelchairs with service dogs receive more frequent social acknowledgment than when no dog is present.” They found that children with service dogs receive “friendly glances, smiles, and conversations” more frequently when a service dog is present. Further, they found such social effects “were more pronounced in shopping malls, typical of unfamiliar settings where the child would be likely to experience being ignored or overlooked.” Bonnie Mader, Lynette A. Hart, and Bonita Bergin, Social Acknowledgments for Children with Disabilities: Effects of Service Dogs. 60(6) Child Development 1529 (1989). Although not a courtroom study, these results may indicate that the presence of a service dog could alter a jury’s “social acknowledgment” of a child witness, so further research should be undertaken to determine whether this social acknowledgment might extend to a jury’s perception of a child’s veracity.
XIII. FINAL OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
A number of states have been considering legislation to permit the use of facility dogs with children and disabled witnesses, and several of the cases discussed above are primarily concerned with determining whether the use of a dog by a child or vulnerable witness during a prosecution was acceptable under state child- or vulnerable-witness statutes. A uniform law might be difficult to draft given that many states have different approaches on judicial latitude with regard to vulnerable witnesses, and uniformity on facility dogs might be difficult to anchor across such a broad range of statutory structures. Also, it is the author’s opinion that additional judicial experience regarding the types of cases where facility dogs are appropriate, the types of witnesses for whom they are appropriate, and the range of dogs that should be permitted in the witness stand should be allowed to develop further inside of American judicial experience before imposing legislative uniformity.
A. Targeted Research Needed
Although there is a place for facility dogs in the testimony of children and vulnerable witnesses, trial courts, and some appellate courts, have been too easily enamored of the prospect of improving the chances that the witness will feel free to speak without considering that a jury might assume that the presence of the dog allowed to child to speak truth where the child would otherwise not speak at all or would suppress the truth. This should be a subject of scientific inquiry by criminologists and psychologists, and for those various disciplines studying the effects of animals on human psychology. Such research might involve a survey of members of juries that have heard testimony where facility dogs and service animals accompanied witnesses. The study should determine not only whether the presence of the animal affected the juror’s vote, but also whether other reactions and impressions of a juror might indicate the existence of a more subtle, perhaps unconscious, bias. Psychological studies should also be undertaken to determine if children or individuals with different disabilities remember more about an incident in the presence of a dog, or remember what happened more accurately.
Writing almost a century ago, Judge McWhorter of West Virginia wrote that “bloodhound testimony” seemed to exert a “superstitious awe in juries,” which courts were satisfied they had neutralized “with admonitions of great caution….” J.C. McWhorter, The Bloodhound as a Witness. 54 American Law Review 109 (1920). Those states that have rejected tracking evidence were, according to a Maryland court, primarily concerned with the effect such testimony can have on a jury. Terrell v. Maryland, 3 Md.App. 340, 239 A.2d 128 (Ct.Spec.App. 1968). The Maryland appellate court noted that the bloodhound’s supposed reliability, along with “local prejudice and public indignation and excitement may exert undue influence on the jury,” and that “the mere use of the dogs will arouse the public’s excitement with the result of prejudicing the defendant.”
More recently, a California appellate court agreed with the defense that the presence of a trailing dog in the courtroom during the handler’s testimony was “more prejudicial than probative and violated his due process right to a fair trial.” The dog was apparently in the courtroom because the handler and dog were “due to leave on a trip together.” The court stated that “Inga’s presence likely generated sympathy for Garvin and bias against defendants.” Nevertheless, the court found sufficient other evidence of guilt to label this harmless error. California v. Oudin, 2015 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4147 (June 12, 2015).
A dose of the kind of skepticism expressed by Judge McWhorter and these courts would be appropriate with regard to facility dogs in courtrooms, and introducing such skepticism should at times be an objective of defense counsel. In a number of the cases described above, defense counsel failed to make timely or appropriate objections to the use of the dog, or seemed to have researched key issues only for an appeal, making it easy for an appellate court to declare whatever error may have been involved was minor.
B. Dog Should Be Inconspicuous
Courts have not always adequately considered whether the presence of a facility dog could be hidden from the jury, or whether it should be. Expecting that a dog would have to show overt behavior towards a defendant, as was suggested by the Washington State Supreme Court in Dye, is naïve. A dog is unlikely to react to a defendant sitting quietly beside defense counsel merely because the defendant is a cause for a child’s nervousness. In any case, the witness’s anxiety may be to the courtroom and the number of people in it rather than to only one person sitting many feet away, as was indicated in Chenault. The prejudice that could arise in the jury from the presence of the dog would more likely come from a witness’s constant attention to it, giving the impression that the witness is unburdening himself or herself to the animal in a catharsis that leaves no room for fabricating lies. Courts should therefore consider how best to limit the jury’s perceptions regarding the significance of a dog during testimony. A jury instruction may not be enough given that the human-animal bond, particularly with regard to dogs, is in some way elemental to the relationship we have had for thousands of years and could cross the courtroom to connect the dog to some members of the jury.
Thus, it is not merely that temporary relationship between a witness and a dog brought in to calm and comfort the witness that should be of concern to a judge. Just as a witness with a prosthetic device could be required to limit the visibility of the device during testimony in a negligence trial where the liability concerns circumstances under which the witness had to begin using the device, so here an effort should be made to limit the jury’s attention to a witness’s vulnerability. The record should at least establish that a trial court understood such issues and attempted to address them in a fair-minded and logical manner in the case being heard.
Part of a court’s concern with the dog being inconspicuous is that any handler present should also be as inconspicuous as possible. One commenter has argued that dogs that have to be accompanied by a handler would present a problem for a court, as:
Having a trained handler accompany the dog likely would be a distraction for jury members, who may spend time studying the handler rather than paying close attention to the testimony. Also, because the dog would be under control of the handler, the witness may not have the sense of empowerment that comes with holding a dog’s leash and walking up to the stand alone with a dog under his or her control.
Gabriela N. Sandoval, Court Facility Dogs—Easing the Apprehensive Witness, 38 The Colorado Lawyer 17 (April 2010) (citing Pet Therapy Dogs in the Criminal Justice System, http://www.courthousedogs.org/pdf/CourthouseDogs-PetTherapyDogs.pdf). The presence of a handler in addition to the dog would presumably be a factor a court should consider in determining the appropriateness of the use of the dog. Sherri Minhinnick, a professional trainer and handler working in several states, advises the author that, in being brought into cases by psychologists involved in child sexual abuse cases, part of her responsibility has become “to instill enough confidence to allow the child to become a temporary and casual handler for the support animal.” She visits the courtroom where the child will testify with the child and the dog and the child will often gain enough confidence to handle the dog during the testimony that Minhinnick’s role “becomes that of courtroom observer rather than tangential participant during the testimony.” In some instances, the child gains enough confidence through this kind of work that the dog will “not even need to be present in the courtroom” when the child testifies.
C. Witness Categories Appropriate for Facility Dogs
As to the witness, there may be some categories, such as children below the age of 12, where the appropriateness of testimony with a facility dog can largely be assumed. For adult witnesses with mental disabilities, the court should make a determination that the dog will substantially assist the witness in overcoming such fear as might be engendered by the strangeness and imposing nature of the courtroom, or by having to face the defendant. Until such time as research may indicate that truthfulness is not affected, or bias likely to arise in the jury, by the presence of the dog, there appears no reason to be overly restrictive regarding this canine function. It should also be considered that some witnesses, such as veterans with PTSD, may have their own service or support dogs whose presence would overcome a debilitating fear of speaking in a courtroom. A uniform law, in the author’s opinion, will have to allow for this possibility.
D. Qualification of Dog and Handler
As to the qualifications of the dog, it would be best that the dog have the kind of training and testing that therapy and service dogs often undergo, by which they are taught to be calm, avoid excitement and distraction, remain available and, if necessary, attentive to the individual with whom they are paired during a courtroom proceeding, and follow basic commands that can be explained to the witness. Such commands should include Sit, Lie Down, Stay, and perhaps a few others. The presence of a handler near the witness box has received little attention, but with some dogs this may be necessary. With others it may not be necessary, particularly if a child becomes familiar with the dog in pre-trial stages and learns how to walk the dog around, make it sit and lie down and stay in a down position when the child is sitting and talking. In any case, the actual handler should be as inconspicuous as possible and should not have to repetitively or obtrusively signal the dog to remain in place or to lie down if it gets restless.
In any given state or county, there may be a number of sources of appropriate facility dogs. Local service and therapy dog trainers may be able to suggest particular dogs that would be calm and calming. It is the author’s opinion that prosecutors and courts do not need to restrict facility dogs to a single national umbrella organization of trainers of service dogs or to one national therapy dog organization. Further, such a restriction could create an inappropriate monopoly for certain trainers and, given the expenses involved under certain training regimens, make the deployment of facility dogs in many jurisdictions cost-prohibitive. Nevertheless, a requirement of liability coverage might be appropriate, but such policies are already provided to handlers of most regional and national therapy dog organizations and, perhaps with some changes in the wording of policies, should cover courtroom situations.
The law here is in a formative stage, as is the relevant research, so in this author’s opinion it is not yet the time to straightjacket practices into parameters set by the limited number of individuals who have been involved in providing dogs for child and vulnerable witnesses and the author regards it as regrettable that this has already happened in some states. As has happened throughout the history of the common law, it is appropriate to let judges make decisions case by case until the patterns become clear.