Humane officer loses in pigeon shoot case

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A sharply divided Commonwealth Court has denied a Humane Society police officer's bid to force the Berks County district attorney to prosecute a sporting club for how it conducts pigeon shoots.

Ruling 4-3, the full court panel decided Officer Johnna Seeton was not entitled to a writ of mandamus to compel Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams to bring animal cruelty charges against the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association. The association holds shoots for members and their guests and sometimes uses teenaged "trapper boys" to clean up the remains and snap the necks of pigeons that survive.

Pennsylvania is the only state that legalizes live pigeon shoots.

Led by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, the majority held that a writ of mandamus is reserved for instances in which a pubic official refuses to exercise his or her discretion. How the official exercises that discretion is another question, according to the majority.

The lead judges said Pennsylvania case law does not allow mandamus for compelling an official to exercise discretion in a particular way, even if that official is "wrong" -- a proposition the majority never contested.

Pigeon shoots are not per se violations of the animal cruelty law in Pennsylvania, and the case of Seeton v. Adams centered on the handling of the injured birds that survive the shooting.

Officer Seeton, as the county's Humane Society police officer (also known as an animal control officer), is responsible for enforcing the animal cruelty law through initiating criminal proceedings, as well as civil injunction proceedings. In some states, Humane Society officers are more "peace" officers than "police" officers, but in Pennsylvania, they can obtain search warrants, issue citations and even make arrests for violations of Pennsylvania's anti-cruelty laws.

In 2009, Officer Seeton filed two criminal citations alleging the pigeon shoot violated the cruelty law, but Mr. Adams, the district attorney, eventually succeeded in asking a magistrate judge to pull them from the docket.

Officer Seeton followed with her mandamus action, but the trial court dismissed it on Mr. Adams' preliminary objections, ruling that mandamus was not available to review the district attorney's decisions.

The panel narrowly affirmed that decision.

The shoots involve trapping the pigeons and launching them into the air, where club members and guests fire at the birds with the hopes of landing them in a designated scoring area.

Pigeons that survive the affair are fielded by "trapper boys," who corral the wounded birds and snap their necks. Those that escape the trapper boys live in the wild with injuries from the shootings.

In 2009, days after Officer Seeton brought her criminal citations, Mr. Adams contacted the police officer and told her to withdraw the citations. He advised her to pursue civil remedies against the Sportsmen's Association if she believed members had violated a 2001 injunction Officer Seeton had secured to protect injured birds.

She refused and, in 2010, took a loss before the trial court on preliminary objections. The panel's Aug. 9 opinion affirmed that ruling.

While it was the majority that acknowledged the cruelty of pigeon shoots -- a contested area of discussion in the Pennsylvania General Assembly -- the dissenters limited their words to legal analysis.

"It is truly shocking that live, not clay, pigeons are catapulted into the air for target practice," Judge Leavitt said, closing a 16-page majority opinion. "However, as observed by the district attorney, it is for the Legislature to address this practice."

legalnews

Ben Present: bpresent@alm.com or 215-557-2315. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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