Court of Appeals Rules Against Support Dogs for Adults in Trials in People v. Shorter
The appearance of support dogs in court has become more and more common. The idea is for the dogs to provide comfort to people who are scared or stressed to testify in public. The most common area for the dogs are for the complainant (the person accusing the defendant of the crime) in sex crime cases.
This leads to the question: How does the jury see the dogs? Might the jury be prejudiced into believing the complainant over the defendant because of the dog’s presence? This is an important question because sex crime trials can often be pure credibility contests. The dog could provide an unfair bias against the defendant. The Court of Appeals addressed this issue recently in the case of People v. Dakota Lee Shorter.
What Happened in the Case
Defendant Shorter was convicted of one count of third degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of fourth degree criminal sexual conduct. The accusations stemmed from a night in which the defendant and complainant slept in the same bed together. The two had been friends and may have been flirting throughout the day but had never been sexual. The complainant claimed she awoke to the defendant sexually assaulting her. Defendant stated this did not happen. While there were other witnesses who could testify about the two parties’ statements, the case basically boiled down to a credibility contest: The jury would decide the case based on who was more credible, the complainant or the defendant.
This is Where the Dog Comes In
At trial, the Court allowed the complainant to testify while accompanied by a a support dog. The defendant objected to the dog’s presence as prejudicial against him. He claimed the jury was inclined to believe the complainant more with the dog by her side, that the jury would be inclined to believe her if she needed a support animal. The prosecutor countered the argument by claiming the complainant was emotionally sensitive and prone to outbursts, which were calmed by the dog. The defendant was convicted at trial, and appealed based on the support dog.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
A prior court case had allowed the presence of a support dog for a complainant. However, the Court here noted there was a major difference between that case and this case. In the prior case, the support dog was for a child. In the present case, the support dog was for an able-bodied adult.
The Court went on to differentiate this case from the prior case. The prior case noted that many other jurisdictions allowed support animals. However, in all those cases the complainant was either a child or a developmentally disabled adult.
The prosecutor argued that the decisions to allow a support animal should rest with the trial court’s inherent authority to govern the courtroom. This was too much for the Court of Appeals. The Court said a support animal for an able-bodied adult is exceptional.
The Court ruled the presence of the dog in this case undermined the reliability of the jury’s verdict.
Sam Bernstein is a lawyer in Washtenaw County focusing on Criminal Defense Law.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.