Wednesday, August 1, 2001
Appeals Court Rejects Necessity Defense, Upholds Cruelty Conviction for Woman Who Kept 92 Cats in Trailer
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A woman who fled Sacramento with a trailer-full of cats to keep a step ahead of animal control authorities, only to be charged with cruelty across the line in Placer County, had her conviction upheld yesterday by the Third District Court of Appeal.
A panel of justices rejected Suzanna Savedra Youngblood’s assertion that officials in the Sierra foothills destroyed evidence that she fed and cared for the cats when they towed her trailer, with its 92 feline passengers aboard, across a bumpy road to an animal shelter in Auburn.
Key to the trial court’s finding that exculpatory evidence was not destroyed as the trailer was pulled the nearly 10 miles to the DeWitt Center was the observation of the tow truck driver that one cat kept its seat on a box next to the front window for the entire ride.
In the only published portion of the opinion, the court held that cat owners charged with cruelty are not entitled to instruct jurors that their actions were necessary to keep the animals from being euthanized.
The ruling means Youngblood likely will have to serve 92 days in jail—one day for every cat rescued from her trailer. She may not possess or care for any cat or dog, except for one particular cat named Holly Angel.
The jail time is a condition of her probation and in lieu of a five-year prison term.
Youngblood’s problems with the law began when Sacramento authorities notified her in 1998 that she simply had too cats. At the time, she had 35 to 40. Sacramento County law limits residents to four cats.
She drove her animals to Placer County and parked her trailer on the property of Terrence Devaney, who agreed to allow her to live there with the cats. Sometimes she lived in the trailer itself, sometimes on a tent pitched next to it. She fed the cats and cleaned up after them.
Eventually, she moved back to Sacramento, but visited the trailer every now and then to look in on her cats. She also brought new strays that she picked up in Sacramento until the number of animals more than doubled.
During the holiday season, though, she became ill and did not visit the trailer as often. On New Year’s Eve 1998, a Placer County animal control officer knocked on Devaney’s door in response to a complaint, was shown the trailer and looked inside.
He saw cats with obvious signs of poor care, sneezing and with eye discharge. Fecal matter was scattered throughout the trailer, and the stench of urine was strong.
He obtained a search warrant and called a tow truck. Youngblood arrived just as the trailer was being hooked up, and she tried to persuade the control officer to take a vial of medicine for the animals. But the officer wouldn’t take it, because it wasn’t properly marked.
At the DeWitt Center, the trailer was opened and the contents videotaped. The cats were removed, numbered, and treated by a veterinarian. The vet noted that most of the cats were covered in urine and feces, that many were malnourished and emaciated, that some had respiratory infections, ear mites and fleas. Some were blind, or missing eyes or limbs.
Youngblood was charged with animal cruelty for depriving the cats of necessary sustenance, drink or shelter and subjecting them to needless suffering. A jury convicted her and Judge James Garbolino handed down the probation order, the jail sentence, and the order keeping all animals but one out of her care.
In the unpublished portion of the opinion, the appeals court rejected Youngblood’s assertion that the animal cruelty statute required a finding that she tormented and tortured cats as well as failed to properly care for them.
In a discussion that centered on the meaning of the word “and” in the statute, Justice George Nicholson said Penal Code Sec. 597 requires that the defendant committed only one of the enumerated acts.
“Written in 1905, the statute may be said to include literary flair in the place of a bland numbered list, the likes of which we have come to expect and prefer in contemporary discourse,” the justice said.
Youngblood also claimed that the authorities, in moving the trailer, failed to preserve the water and food dishes she had placed throughout, and that they should have videotaped it before they moved it, not after. She said she threw out various trash bags—-which may have contained cat food—-because she was urged to do so by the animal control officer.
But Nicholson noted that the officer testified that there was fecal matter all over the trailer, and that he had to remove various pans that were in the way in order to get the cats out at the shelter.
As for the move, the officer said, the only change inside the trailer that resulted was the shifting of some animal carriers. The road was not so bumpy as to dislodge one of the cats sitting in front during the ride.
The justice agreed with the trial judge that there was no exculpatory evidence destroyed.
“The presence of trash and feed bags and feed and water bowls does not demonstrate the defendant was not guilty of animal cruelty,” Nicholson said. “Furthermore, there was no indication the officers denied their existence. Accordingly, evidence could still be presented to the jury concerning the existence of this evidence.”
As for showing the jury a tape of the trailer after, but not before, the move, Nicholson said there was no evidence that the move caused the conditions for which Youngblood was convicted—-having 92 diseased and malnourished cats in an 11-foot-by-7ﬁ-foot trailer with weeks worth of waste matter.
In the brief published portion of the opinion, Nicholson rejected Youngblood’s contention that what she did was necessary to protect the cats from being euthanized, and that her jury should have been instructed in such a defense.
The statutory scheme describing what to do with impounded cats, including humanely putting them to death, “occupies the field of what to do with stray cats,” the justice said.
“The defendant is not at liberty to impose her own will over the public will,” he said. “Her assertion that it was necessary for her to keep the cats instead of passing them on to animal control flies in the face of legitimately adopted public policy. Accordingly, since her proffered necessity defense is against public policy, the trial court properly denied her request for the necessity instruction and prohibited her from arguing the defense to a jury.”
The case is People v. Youngblood, C033929.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company