The former operator of a West Chicago-area kennel where 29 dogs died in a fire three years ago is still allowed to own a dog, even though he was found guilty of animal cruelty.
The morning of the blaze, firefighters found a thick scene: the remains of a dog named Koko underneath a charred pile of debris, confined to a bathtub.
The chain tethering the dog in an upstairs bathroom was so taut that Koko couldn’t even lay down, let alone escape the fire, authorities later testified in Garrett Mercado’s trial.
Prosecutors sought to ban Mercado from ever owning dogs again as part of his sentencing last fall. But a DuPage County judge denied the request, saying he could not impose a lifetime ban in the misdemeanor case based on existing law.
“It didn’t allow the judge to give a sentence that provided for a full measure of justice,” DuPage State’s Attorney Robert Berlin said of the current statute.
Spurred in part by the kennel case, Berlin’s office is pursuing legislation in Springfield to toughen the state’s animal protection laws.
“In Illinois, the language of the statute is not clear whether a court can impose a lifetime ban for possessing animals, or whether that ban can be longer than the sentence given by the court,” Assistant State’s Attorney Alyssa Rabulinski said.
As written now, state law says pet ownership can be restricted for a period the “court deems reasonable” for certain offenses.
“Illinois statute regarding the court’s ability to impose the ban or forfeiture only applies when a defendant is convicted, and that is the operative word: convicted,” Rabulinski recently told the county board’s legislative committee. “Therefore, when a defendant receives court supervision, the court cannot impose a ban or forfeiture of animals.”
Someone caught violating owner’s duties — failing to provide proper care — can be spared a conviction and instead receive court supervision.
The legislative proposal spearheaded by the state’s attorney’s office would add that and other misdemeanors to the list of offenses for which prosecutors may file a petition for forfeiture prior to trial.
Without the proposal, “for certain offenses, animals will remain with their abuser or owner who abused other animals during the pendency of the criminal court case,” Rabulinski said. “… Without the House bill, for certain offenses, unless a defendant is convicted, the animals will remain with their abuser or owner who abused other animals.”
The proposal has faced opposition from the American Kennel Club.
“The AKC strongly believes that all dog owners must properly care for their animals, and that all animals deserve lives in a safe, humane, and healthy environment,” a club statement reads. “However, while in some cases the violations may be significant, others may be a minor infraction that can be corrected and do not rise to the level of a serious offense. In addition, this change from convictions to violations is a significant shift that could result in dog owners permanently losing their animals for offenses even if they are not convicted of a crime.”
Berlin said he believes the kennel misunderstands what court supervision means. There’s still a criminal charge and a finding of guilt when someone is placed on supervision after violating misdemeanor laws.
“But to us, the fact that you’re found guilty, you’ve committed the offense. It shouldn’t make a difference whether you get supervision, conditional discharge or probation, which are convictions, or jail time,” Berlin said. “The judge should still have the option of the forfeiture.”
Mercado was found guilty of three counts of animal cruelty and six counts of violating his duties while managing the kennel.
“It was really disgraceful how these animals were being treated,” Berlin said. “You had far too many animals in a small space in cages. And of course, at the time of the fire, there was actually nobody even present, so there was no supervision.”
Judge Robert Miller sentenced Mercado in November to 20 days in jail. Mercado also will have to serve two years of probation followed by four years of conditional discharge, during which time he will only be allowed to own one dog.
Miller acknowledged that once Mercado has completed his sentence, he could go back to having dozens of dogs. “There’s really not much the court can do about it,” Miller said at the time.
While frustrated by the outcome, Berlin said he has no criticism of the judge.
“When I see a deficiency in the law that I believe doesn’t reflect where we are as a society, it’s my obligation to try and get that law changed,” Berlin said.
Under existing law, there also isn’t a mechanism for enforcing a court-ordered ban on owning animals.
“Consequently, there’s no avenue of recourse for animal control or a local police department to secure the animal illegally possessed, forfeit the animal and then find it a new loving home,” Rabulinski said.
But under the legislative proposal, those found violating such a prohibition on owning pets could face possible criminal charges that carry a potential sentence of up to 90 days in jail, a maximum fine of $2,500, or both. Violations also could result in the immediate forfeiture of their animals.