During a swearing-in ceremony at the Cook County Criminal Courts building in Chicago earlier this week, and attended by Cook County States Attorney Kim Fox, a Labrador Retriever named Hatty was sworn-in as the newest employee of the prosecutor’s office. During the ceremony, she stood on her hind legs and put her paw on a law book. Although under Illinois law, children are not allowed to work full time jobs, this two-year-old will however be working from nine to five every day, presumably only for treats and the occasional bone. It’s estimated that the dog, who was partially trained by jail inmates, may be involved in up to 200 such cases each year.
The purpose of hiring Hatty as the Chicago court’s first ever emotional-support animal is to help ease the emotional strain that criminal proceedings inherently have upon those with mental health issues and young children who attend court primarily as victims of assault. Those in favor, point to evidence that it helps reduce the anxiety for these traumatized victims and it makes it easier for them to calmly and correctly tell their stories in the courtroom or in front of judges, prosecutors or criminal lawyers. The whole purpose is to avoid adding even more trauma to what is typically a very difficult situation already, as courts can be scary even for adults.
But there are also calls from others asking for the courts to keep this practice on a “short leash”. Concerns from some, primarily criminal defense lawyers, argue that using such animals in court is “barking up the wrong tree” and may inadvertently have the effect of creating bias among members of the jury. They say that the presence of such dogs may improperly increase the credibility of the human witness just because people tend to like dogs and it may make the witness seem more likable and sympathetic so the jurors may feel extra compassion for the person or child testifying. Some studies have been done with jurors to test this theory, but most such studies have not found this to be true.
On many occasions, criminal attorneys have been known to object to the presence of animals, primarily during jury trials. Motions have been filed with the trial court and in some circumstances, appeals have been filed with appellate courts, challenging this notion. But judges generally seem to side with the witness being allowed the use of such service or support animals, holding that any possible minor detriment is outweighed by the great benefit to the victim or witness.
In one such case, a defendant who was convicted of predatory sexual assault of a child appealed the court’s ruling at least partially on the basis that the trial court had permitted the 15 year old victim to be accompanied by a dog while testifying and that this prejudiced his case somehow. The victim, who had been diagnosed with PTSD was allowed the use of the animal due to her anxiety and to help her speak more freely about the crimes committed against her. In ruling against the defendant, the appeals court indicated that there were no indications that the dog interfered with cross-examination of the witness or influenced the trial in any discernable manner.
Although what just happened here in the Chicago criminal court system may seem like a unique event, the reality is that the use of comfort and emotional support animals in other courts across Illinois and the nation has been on the rise over the last few years, with over 150 animals in over 35 states so far making the courthouse their place of employment. Other parts of the world including Europe, South America and Australia allow dogs for this purpose as well. Some states have even gone so far as to pass laws that protect the rights of comfort dogs to be present in court for children and other vulnerable participants, while many other states have similar laws that are now pending passage. Criminal courts in Chicago and across Illinois have long been known as places that are sensitive to the rights of victims, going so far as to pass the “Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act” many years ago. Allowing the use of dogs for the benefit of crime victims is just the logical extension of that notion.
If you have any questions, please contact our experienced Chicago criminal defense legal team at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC today by calling 800-996-4824 or by filling out our online contact form.
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