LOCKPORT - Those who abuse animals in Niagara County will find it harder to avoid being listed on the county's animal abuser registry, if a proposed new law passes the County Legislature.
Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso said the amended law, which he and three colleagues introduced Tuesday, is aimed at preventing those charged with animal cruelty or neglect from eluding a spot on the registry through a plea bargain to a non-animal cruelty charge.
Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, got the county's original animal abuser registry law through the County Legislature in 2015. Cattaraugus is the only other Western New York county with such a law, although they are common downstate, where seven counties and New York City have animal abuser registries.
An animal abuser registry has been proposed twice in the Erie County Legislature, but never has passed.
In Niagara County, those on the registry are barred from purchasing or possessing animals for 15 years, and animal shelter and pet sellers are barred from dealing with them. There are currently six names on the list.
But the application of the law revealed a loophole, said Amy L. Lewis, executive director of the SPCA of Niagara.
Defendants convicted of a misdemeanor animal abuse crime are now required to be added to the register. But Lewis cited the case of an elderly man in Hartland who was allowed to plead guilty to a violation for not taking care of his animals. That kept him off the registry.
Lewis called Virtuoso about the matter, and he turned to District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek, who wrote the text of the amendment Virtuoso introduced.
The proposed amendment says that in cases where there is a plea to a reduced charge in an animal cruelty case, a judge may order the defendant's name placed on the animal abuser list anyway.
"It would still be in the discretion of the District Attorney's Office, or the judge, if we want it to be part of the resolution of the case," Wojtaszek said.
Wojtaszek said she has no objection to the result in the Hartland man's case. "He was elderly and barely could take of himself, let alone his animals," she said.
In instances such as that, or in other cases where the alleged animal abuser is mentally ill, "justice in those cases is not a plea to the (original) charge," Wojtaszek said. "But we don't want them turning around and getting more cows or more cats."
Wojtaszek said from now on, she will personally review all animal cruelty cases in the county, taking part of the burden off prosecutors in municipal courts who have heavy caseloads. "If you have one person reviewing the cases, it leads to better results," Wojtaszek said.
The Niagara County Legislature will hold a public hearing on the amended law at 6:30 p.m. March 21 in the County Courthouse, 175 Hawley St., Lockport.