In Florida, the crime of animal cruelty can either be a misdemeanor or a felony. Felonies are more serious and carry maximum punishments greater than one year in prison while misdemeanors carry maximum punishments of no more than one year. In Florida, misdemeanor animal cruelty is committed by killing, tormenting, depriving of food and water or unnecessarily mutilating an animal. The wording of misdemeanor animal cruelty clearly covers a lot of bad conduct that one might inflict upon an animal. In order for felony animal cruelty to apply, a person must cause a “cruel death” of an animal or cause excessive or repeated suffering to an animal.
There is generally a big difference between a felony charge and a misdemeanor charge. However, there is some overlap in the language of the two levels of animal cruelty. If a person torments an animal and/or deprives it of food to cause its death, that clearly would be a misdemeanor under the above language. However, it also could be considered repeated or excessive suffering or a cruel death, which would make it a felony.
When such an act of animal cruelty occurs, how does one know if the misdemeanor or felony charge is more appropriate? It is typically up to the police officer and the prosecutor. They make the decisions as to the charge for which the defendant is arrested and what charge is filed. As we have seen in Jacksonville, Florida, the police and the prosecutors typically err on the side of the more serious felony charge. In fact, we have seen cases where people kill animals by shooting them, resulting in quick deaths, and the felony charge is filed. These acts would seem to clearly fall within the misdemeanor animal cruelty definition, but the more serious felony charge is filed because people suspected of committing animal cruelty resulting in the death of an animal do not often get the benefit of the doubt.
However, in any animal cruelty case, the law must still be followed, and the state should not be permitted to overcharge an act that should be charged as a misdemeanor under Florida law.