Sweet Paws animal cruelty case: dismissed

Laurinda Miller weeps on the stand at her April trial. (DAYMOND STEER PHOTO)

OSSIPEE — After deliberating for 2 1/2 weeks, a circuit judge on Wednesday dismissed the 19 charges of animal cruelty that had been filed against an Ossipee woman who was operating an animal shelter that was raided by police last summer.

The reason for the dismissals was basically because the criminal complaints didn't apply the wording of anti-animal abuse laws currently on the books to Miller's situation.

Laurinda Miller, 52, who ran Sweet Paws Spa/Sweet Tails Animal Rescue in Center Ossipee, was charged last August with 21 counts of Class A misdemeanor animal cruelty for keeping 69 animals at her home, business and non-profit rescue organization. The charges followed a July 10 police raid to remove the animals from Sweet Paws/Sweet Tails at 1800 Route 16.

Last summer, police said that pets at the shelter were kept in "deplorably" filthy conditions and forced to lie in their own feces and urine. In all, 59 dogs and about 10 cats were taken to local shelters, including the Conway Area Humane Society.

Judge James Patten dismissed two of the charges at trial at the end of April and the rest in a written order filed May 11.

Patten said the animal cruelty law says a person can be found guilty if he or she "without lawful authority negligently deprives or causes to be deprived any animal in his possession or custody necessary care, sustenance or shelter."

But the criminal complaints didn't use the word "care." Instead, they charged that Miller deprived the animals "of adequate dry and clean shelter and sustenance."

The judge said there was not sufficient evidence to show that the animals weren't given enough food and water. And he agreed with the defense's argument that the definition of shelter means protection from the elements such as heat and the sun.

"There was no evidence presented that would suggest that the defendant's shelter structural facility would deprive the dogs she kept in the kennel such protection from the weather," wrote Patten.

During the trial, which ended April 22, Miller took the stand in her own defense, telling the court that ordinarily Sweet Paws/Sweet Tails was a clean, safe place but that the septic system, which had been malfunctioning, finally failed. She said conditions deteriorated rapidly over a 24-hour period that ended with the police raid.

"I did my best to take care of them, but I just came to a septic situation," said Miller, weeping on the stand. "They always had food and water. My animals eat better than me."

She said she was afraid the cats and dogs would end up at a kill shelter.

Miller said she consulted with plumbers and had the septic system pumped, which she thought solved the problem for a time. She was told to find someone to jackhammer open the concrete floor to give access to the septic system. She said the boyfriend of a board member offered to do the work but never found time to do it. At one point, she considered trying to do the jackhammer work herself.

"I gave the board members their own key to come in," said Miller. "Everyone seemed like they always had some other obligations."

Public Defender Justin Littlefield said the prosecution never proved the animals were in poor health because of her care. He also had a number of satisfied customers testify that Miller seemed to be good steward of animals.

At the conclusion of his 21/2-page order, Patten expressed doubt about Miller's story that the problems at the shelter came on suddenly.

"The court is chagrined by the choice defendant made to testify that conditions of her care for the animals, which resulted in the accumulation of fecal matter to the extent shown by the photographic exhibits, occurred essentially over a 24-hour period," wrote Patten. "Such assertion simply cannot be true on the evidence presented. Her neglect in care for the animals shown by the evidence presented was reprehensible, regardless of how much trouble she was having cleaning up after her charges."

However, he said, Miller "wasn't charged with cruelty by negligently depriving the animals of necessary care by her failure to keep the animals themselves clean and dry."

Assistant County Attorney Geoff Gallagher had hoped to meet the state's "heavy burden of proof" by demonstrating there was a lack of potable water at her facility and that she had failed to keep the dogs' living area "clean and dry."

Gallagher said he will discuss appeal options with the state Attorney General's Office but added those will be limited. He said the town might be able to pursue civil remedies and that the legislature should address "oddities" in the law that Patten pointed out in his order.

As examples, Gallagher said a subsection applies only to dogs, which shortchanges the cats.

Gallagher said Patten interpreted the "clean and dry" requirement of the law to refer only to weather, and not urine and feces. "The Office of the Carroll County Attorney," he said, "respectfully disagrees with this interpretation."

But "I certainly respect Judge Patten," said Gallagher. "He is the ultimate fact finder."

Virginia Moore, executive director of the Conway Area Humane Society, believes New Hampshire's animal cruelty law needs to be changed.

"We are disappointed in the outcome," said Moore. "It is a sad day for animal welfare in New Hampshire."

Bob King, who is a detective sergeant with the Ossipee Police Department, said he appreciated the time that Patten put into the order but disagreed with the decision he reached.

"The Ossipee Police Department will continue to explore every legal avenue at our disposal, and consider this matter far from closed," said King.

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