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COA addresses evidence needed for animal fighting conviction

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For only the second time, the Indiana Court of Appeals has addressed the issue of evidence used to obtain a conviction under I.C. 35-46-3-8, which outlaws buying or owning an animal for an animal fighting contest.

In Rahsaan A. Johnson v. State of Indiana, 18A02-1304-CR-343, Rahsaan Johnson appealed convictions of 14 counts of Class D felony possession of animals for fighting contests.  Muncie Animal Shelter officials went to an abandoned trailer on reports of dogs barking from inside. The shelter’s superintendent called police after observing animals chained up in deplorable conditions. After obtaining a warrant, police discovered a total of 25 animals on the property, often stacked in dog cages crammed inside the mobile home. The animals had injuries consistent with dog fighting, and officers found paraphernalia often used in dog fighting training, such as weighted collars, medicine and treadmills.

Of the 25 dogs, 13 were adopted out and 12 were euthanized for either medical or temperament reasons.

Johnson faced 26 charges as a result of the search, but was convicted of the 14 Class D felonies and seven Class A misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. He received an aggregate sentence of four years in the Department of Correction.

He challenged the evidence used to convict him and argued his convictions violated double jeopardy.

The judges noted caselaw is scant in interpreting I.C. 35-46-3-8, so they relied on Clemons v. State, 987 N.E.2d 92, 95 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013), the only appellate decision to date concerning the sufficiency of evidence used to convict someone under this statute. Clemons was convicted of possessing “battle cocks” for fighting purposes.

“Contrary to Johnson’s argument that the dogs’ fighting history cannot be indicative of their future purpose, the Clemons court found the evidence that the roosters had been used to fight in the past, combined with the fighting paraphernalia, was sufficient to uphold Clemons’ conviction. We find the same rationale applies in Johnson’s case,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

Johnson claimed that he was housing the animals and training them to enter weight-pulling competitions, which are legal. He also argued some of the animals were kept solely for breeding purposes or companionship.

“We do not dispute Johnson’s assertion that ‘millions of Hoosiers own animals, and the vast majority of them would never dream of using them in an animal fighting contest,’” Judge Patricia Riley wrote. “It is clear from the evidence, however, that Johnson is not included among this majority of Hoosiers. Accordingly, we find that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to determine that Johnson possessed these fourteen pit bulls for the purpose of animal fighting. Fortunately for Johnson, the Indiana Department of Correction will not subject him to the inhumane conditions that he forced upon those twenty-five dogs.”

The judges also found his convictions do not violate the double jeopardy clause of the Indiana Constitution.
 

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