Detailed Discussion of Humane Societies and Enforcement Powers

  • Christopher A. Pierce
  • Animal Legal & Historical Center
  • Publish Date: 2011
  • Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law

I. Introduction

Humane societies, and other nonprofits working for the prevention of cruelty to animals, are primarily known for managing adoption shelters and educating the community about animal abuse and neglect. The enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often left to law enforcement. However, few police officers have the necessary training or expertise to enforce these laws. [1] To address this problem, many states have significantly expanded the role of humane societies to include enforcing animal cruelty laws. To accommodate this expanded role, humane society agents are bestowed with police powers. The amount of police powers can range from no police power to all possible police powers, an amount equivalent to that of law enforcement agencies. 

Despite this wide variance, states may be classified into the following five categories: the ordinary rights approach, animal rescue approach, limited law enforcement approach, law enforcement approach, and community policing approach. A related issue to the types of police powers granted to humane societies is the creation of a regulatory system to vest and monitor these powers. This Article will explain the five categories of systems that states have developed to vest power to humane societies. Additionally, the Article will discuss a previous legal challenge that challenged Pennsylvania’s authority to vest power to humane societies. Finally, the Article will conclude with a summary of California and Pennsylvania’s law enforcement approaches, which are examples of two comprehensive systems.


II. Approaches

A. Ordinary Rights Approach

The ordinary rights approach essentially covers the traditional humane society functions of operating animal shelters and educating the community about animal abuse. [2] Most states (twenty-two) follow this approach. The humane society is granted no police powers and is limited to the rights shared by a member of the general population. Jurisdictions with this approach may still regulate humane societies in their other functions such as the types of chemicals used in the euthanasia of animals. [3]

Although humane societies may not have extraordinary police powers, some of these states still maintain a specialized enforcement regime beyond ordinary law enforcement to combat animal cruelty.  For instance, Colorado has a Bureau of Animal Protection with a commissioner who can appoint agents to assist law enforcement. [4] These agents are not necessarily chosen from humane societies but they are still specialized individuals who handle animal cruelty cases.  North Carolina and North Dakota have a similar process in which agents are appointed, regardless of whether they are from a humane society. [5] Illinois requires the humane society to endorse an appointment but the agent does not have to be a member of the humane society. [6] Some states have full-time animal cruelty officers who are government employees. [7] Therefore, these states may not necessarily need the humane societies to help enforce animal cruelty laws.

B. Animal Rescue Approach

The animal rescue approach differs from the ordinary rights approach because humane society representatives serve a role at the crime scene.[8] The representatives work in tandem with law enforcement by seizing abused and neglected animals and providing treatment to the animals. The most significant police powers are still reserved to law enforcement but these states are likely to vest animal seizure power to the humane society. 

Under this approach, humane societies also investigate animal cruelty, though this role may be limited if the humane society is unable to obtain search warrants. Instead, the agent relies primarily on the consent of the suspect or other legal searches that do not require a warrant. For instance, any duly authorized officer or employee of a humane society can seize any animal that is sick or disabled due to neglect or abuse in Alabama. [9]  However, these humane society employees still must satisfy certain due process protections such as written notice to the animal’s owner [10] and do not have any additional police powers. Minnesota is unique because their Code allows humane society agents to investigate animal cruelty but then the agent must seek a police officer’s assistance to actually enforce the animal cruelty laws.

C. Limited Law Enforcement Approach

States with the limited law enforcement approach grant humane society agents more police powers than the animal rescue approach but do not vest all the police powers of an active duty police officer. [11] Most commonly, humane society agents under this approach are allowed to investigate animal cruelty, seize animals, and conduct searches. However, they normally do not carry a firearm and are not allowed to arrest offenders. For instance, Kentucky gives humane society agents all “the powers of peace officers, except arrest, to enforce animal cruelty provisions.” [12] The humane society agent has to request an actual peace officer to arrest the offender.

D. Law Enforcement Approach

The law enforcement approach grants all police powers to the humane society agent. Occasionally, states will even deputize these agents when granting police powers. [13] Police powers granted to humane society agents include seizing animals, investigating animal abuse, executing search warrants, issuing citations, and arresting offenders. States may also allow the agent to carry a firearm in executing law enforcement duties. [14]

Many states that use this approach maintain detailed regulatory systems to monitor and train agents. For instance, Pennsylvania devotes a whole chapter of their Code to humane society agents with regulations ranging from appointment, qualifications, training, and powers. [15] Likewise, California’s regulatory regime is complex enough to designate two levels of humane society agents. [16]

E. Community Policing Approach

The community policing approach is limited to Indiana. Indiana designates an active duty police officer to serve as a humane officer.[17]  While many states may have humane officers, Indiana’s Code differs by expressly requiring the humane officer to work jointly with the humane society. [18]  The humane officer retains all police powers but investigates animal cruelty violations and enforces animal cruelty laws at the behest of the humane society. The humane officer is required to attend humane society meetings and report monthly. [19] Thus, the humane officer is an extension of the humane society while still remaining an active duty police officer. In addition, the humane officer is entitled to the same amount of pay as a regular police officer. [20]


III. Governmental Oversight

By granting police powers to humane societies, legislatures have to determine the proper method of regulating and vesting police powers. Often, states pick governmental actors to continuously monitor and regulate the humane society agent’s actions.

A. The Granting of Power

Only a few states granting significant police powers allow the humane society sole discretion in the appointment of humane officers. [21] Instead, states appoint governmental entities for oversight. The types of governmental actors that oversee humane society agents can vary across the levels and branches of government. In addition, the roles of these actors can be as narrow as appointing the humane society agents to as expansive as monitoring the agent’s future behavior.

In many states, the court located in the humane society agent’s jurisdiction approves and monitors the agent. [22] In California and Pennsylvania, two of the most comprehensive systems, the courts appoint humane society agents and oversee matters dealing with the agent’s certification and behavior. In contrast, the governor in Oregon grants police powers to “special agents.”  Moreover, some states rely on administrative bodies. For instance, Connecticut requires the Commissioner of Public Safety to appoint the agent. [23]

Occasionally, a state legislature will even defer to local governing bodies to appoint and monitor humane society agents. For example, Louisiana requires the mayor to appoint a humane society agent. North Carolina relies on county commissioners. New Hampshire requires the sheriff’s approval. [24] Florida uses a hybrid approach that requires approval from several government entities to appoint a humane society agent. The mayor must approve all agents within a city while a circuit court judge must approve agents within the county but outside the city. In addition, county commissioners must approve all agents within the county regardless of whether they will enforce animal cruelty laws in or outside a city.

In summary, there is hardly a uniform governmental entity, if an entity is even designated at all, among the states for the appointment and monitoring of humane society agents. Similarly, states vary on whether the appointing governmental entity should be from the state or local level.

B. Agent Training

Most states do not explicitly require training for humane society agents in their statutes. However, states that vest significant police powers to humane societies are more likely require comprehensive training. For instance, Pennsylvania and California list the subject matters that must be covered in the training. [25] In contrast, Ohio relies on the “peace officer training commission” to develop a program for humane society agents. [26] In New York, the State Division of Criminal Justice Services is designated to administer the certification program. [27]

States using the law enforcement approach are likely to allow humane society agents to carry firearms in the performance of their duties. Besides specialized training to combat animal cruelty, additional training is often required for agents authorized to carry firearms. Firearm training is typically continuous throughout the agent’s tenure. For example, California requires agents authorized to carry firearms to complete training for the initial appointment and ongoing weapons training and range qualifications every six months thereafter. [28]


IV. Legal Challenge of a Humane Society’s Authority

By granting police powers to humane societies, states become susceptible to suits challenging this grant of authority. In Pennsylvania v. Barnes, the defendants argued that the police powers granted to a private entity, the Erie Humane Society, was an improper delegation of government authority. [29]  In this case, an environmental inspector with the county health department went to the defendants’ farm to investigate foul odors.  The inspector witnessed the carcasses of dead animals, including two horses, and saw several other horses that appeared undernourished and poorly groomed. The health inspector notified the chief cruelty officer of the Erie Humane Society. [30]

The cruelty officer visited the farm and witnessed the same conditions. [31] The cruelty officer returned later with intentions to obtain consent to search the property but the defendants told the officer that they gave away the horses. [32] Shortly thereafter, the cruelty officer witnessed many ill horses in a nearby field and learned that they were, in fact, the defendants’ horses. [33] The cruelty officer, in conjunction with law enforcement, executed a search warrant and seized the horses. Subsequently, the defendants were found guilty of several counts of animal cruelty. [34]

On appeal, the defendants’ asserted several arguments including a claim that Pennsylvania’s delegation of government authority is in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution. Specifically, the defendants argued that Pennsylvania law

allow[s] the creation of ‘vigilante’ groups-private individuals who are vested with authority to criminally arrest and prosecute the very citizens for whom they are philosophically opposed-which exceeds the powers of the legislature and is contrary to the most basic notions of criminal justice. [35]

The defendants’ challenge of the police powers granted to humane societies consisted of four arguments. The appeals court rejected all of the defendants’ arguments.

First, the defendants cited precedent and argued that the legislature’s delegation of police powers conflicts with the governor’s authority to enforce criminal laws and that the legislature is prohibited by the Pennsylvania Constitution from delegating municipal powers to private entities. [36]  The appeals court rejected this argument because cruelty officers are regulated by the Rules of Criminal Procedure in addition to other procedural rules. [37] The precedent cited by the defendants only dealt with the delegation of legislative power to individuals whose decisions “would not be guided by any standard ‘extraneous to or independent of’ their own judgment.” [38] Simply put, the legislature lawfully delegated police powers because cruelty officers are statutorily required to follow the same procedural protections as police officers. 

The defendants’ second claim was that Pennsylvania’s law usurped the rule-making authority given to the judicial branch in the Pennsylvania constitution. [39] The appeals court disagreed with the defendants because the criminal procedure rules expressly applied to individuals with police powers, including cruelty officers. [40] For the third argument, the appeals court rejected the defendants’ assertion that all searches and seizures are unreasonable when conducted by “untrained private agents” and held that the reasonableness of searches conducted by humane society agents is a matter to be decided on a case-by-case basis. [41]Finally, the appeals court held that the defendants incorrectly asserted that humane society agents are shielded from liability by Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan statute. [42]

Barnes demonstrates an instance where a state appellate court upheld the vesting of police powers despite a barrage of federal and state constitutional claims. As such, Pennsylvania continues to maintain a detailed system of granting police powers to humane societies.


V. States with Comprehensive Regulations

California and Pennsylvania stand out among the states for their comprehensive systems of vesting police powers to humane societies. Both states prescribe police powers with significant amounts of governmental oversight.

A. California

California uses the law enforcement approach to grant powers to humane society officers. The humane society or society for the prevention of cruelty to animals petitions for the appointment of a humane officer. [43] The society is required to maintain records about the officer and certain governmental entities can review the records. [44] California also requires that societies are insured for at least one million dollars in liability coverage for any injury or property damage. [45] The humane officer is only authorized to serve in the county of the appointing court and must exhibit a badge in performance of his duties. [46]

Candidates for humane officers are approved by the society before they are submitted to the courts for approval. [47] Before appointment, the humane officer must complete training, which is paid for by the society. [48] In addition, the society must submit the candidate’s information to the California Department of Justice for a background check, and the society has to provide notice to the local police and sheriff’s departments, the California Highway Patrol, the State Humane Association of California, and the California Department of Justice. [49] The petition submitted to the court must contain a resolution supporting the appointment from the society, the candidate’s criminal history, proof of the society’s proper incorporation and liability insurance, documentation of the candidate’s training, and information about the humane society. [50] If the society has not previously appointed a humane officer, they must also submit an affidavit that contains additional information supporting their authority to appoint a humane officer. [51] Any party may file a petition in opposition to the humane officer’s appointment. [52]

California classifies approved humane officers as either level 1 or level 2. A level 1 humane officer has the powers of a police officer including the abilities to obtain a search warrant, arrest, and carry firearms. [53] A level 1 humane officer must complete at least 20 hours of training in animal care, 40 hours relating to police powers, and basic training for a level 1 reserve officer. [54] A level 2 humane officer has the same powers as a level 1 officer except for the ability to carry a firearm. [55] A level 2 humane officer is required to complete the same training as a level 1 officer except for the basic training for a level 1 reserve officer. [56]

In addition to the initial training, California has continuing education requirements. During each three-year period, the humane officer must complete 40 hours of continuing education sponsored by an accredited postsecondary institution, law enforcement agency, or the State Humane Association of California. If the officer is authorized to carry a firearm, he must complete ongoing weapons training and range qualifications every six months. 

All appointments of humane officers automatically expire if the society disbands or legally dissolves. [57] Furthermore, the society has the power to unilaterally revoke an appointment at any time, and a sheriff, local police agency, or the State Humane Association of California can petition the court to revoke a humane officer’s appointment. [58]

B. Pennsylvania

Like California, Pennsylvania uses the law enforcement approach in granting powers to humane society police officers. Although a humane society police officer has full police powers, the officer’s powers are limited to the county of appointment and to only enforcing animal cruelty laws. [59] The officer is required to possess a metallic shield and a photo identification card in performance of his duties. [60]

A humane society must apply to the court of common pleas in the county where the officer will serve. The court reviews the qualifications of the individual and decides whether the person should be appointed. [61] To qualify, an individual has to be a resident for a year, complete a training program, and have a clean criminal history. [62] Pennsylvania maintains a public registry detailing information about humane society police officers. Information required in the registry includes the name of the officer, the name and address of the appointing humane society, the officer’s jurisdiction, the officer’s training, and any counties in which the officer has had his appointment revoked, suspended, limited, or restricted. [63]

Humane society police officers are required to complete a training program before appointment. [64] This training program is a minimum of 60 hours with a statutorily prescribed curriculum. At least 36 hours of instruction is provided on the following topics: Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty and criminal procedure laws, the care and treatment of animals, proper execution of search warrants, proper search and seizure practices, and any other topic relating to law enforcement duties. [65] The remaining 24 hours is provided on the following topics: animal husbandry practices, accepted agricultural practices, detecting animal cruelty based on the characteristics of the animals, proper care and handling of animals, and treatments and research within the normal scope of veterinarian practices. [66] After receiving training, the officers are required to pass a final examination. [67] After being appointed, the officer has continuing education that is required every two years. This program requires a minimum of 10 hours of training about the same topics covered in the initial training program. [68]

The humane society police officer’s power and authority terminates when services are no longer required of that individual. [69] Pennsylvania also specifies behaviors that can result in suspension, revocation, or restriction of the individual’s appointment as a humane society police officer.  These behaviors include being convicted of a crime, providing misleading information in the initial application for appointment or in documentation of additional training, carrying a firearm in the performance of duties without having proper certification, or performing in a manner that is substandard of conduct normally expected. [70] The court of common pleas decides whether to modify a person’s status as a humane society police officer. [71]


VI. Conclusion

The amount of power that states vest to humane societies can differ tremendously among the states. A majority of states do not vest any extraordinary powers to humane societies while a significant amount of states vest full police powers. Other states take the middle road and encourage humane societies to investigate animal cruelty by granting some police powers while still reserving the most intrusive powers to law enforcement. Similar to the amount of power vested, the amount of government regulation can also significantly vary among the states. Some states provide little oversight while other states require comprehensive and continuous training and certification.

Although data measuring the amount of animal cruelty is scarce, the studies that do exist demonstrate that animal cruelty is under prosecuted when compared to the number of reported incidences. [72] Humane societies are an already important tool for the fight against animal cruelty. Further expanding their role by vesting police powers can promote specialized enforcement of animal cruelty laws—many states have already adopted this approach. Furthermore, humane society agents could serve an important role by conserving law enforcement resources.

[1] Arnold Arluke & Randall Lockwood, Guest Editors’ Introduction: Understanding Cruelty to Animals, 5 Society and Animals (Number 3) 183, 190 (1997).

[2] States that can be characterized as following the ordinary rights approach include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

[3] See e.g., CO ST § 12-22-304.

[8] States that can be characterized as following the animal rescue approach include Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.

[10] Id.

[11] States that can be characterized as following the limited law enforcement approach include Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] See e.g., NH ST § 105:18.

[27] Become an HLE Agent, ASPCA, (last visited Aug. 14, 2011).

[29] Pennsylvania v. Barnes, 629 A.2d 123, 125 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993).

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 126.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 126-127.

[38] Id. at 127.

[39] Id. at 127.

[40] Id. at 127-128.

[41] Id. at 128.

[42] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[65] Id.

[66] Id.

[67] For an example of humane society training in Pennsylvania, see Become a Humane Society Police Officer, Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, (last visited Aug. 14, 2011).

[72] Jennifer Rackstraw, Reaching for Justice: An Analysis of Self-Help Prosecution for Animal Crimes, 9 Animal L. 243 (2003).


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