DNA order in animal abuse case sparks privacy debate

A southern Ontario man admits he bound a dog's snout, neck and legs with electrical tape and left it for dead behind a shopping centre in Windsor, Ont.

One of the more severe punishments in an animal abuse case has drawn attention from legal community

Justice, a seven-year-old, small-breed dog, was found taped and dumped behind a shopping centre in Windsor, Ont. His convicted abuser had to submit a DNA sample as part of his sentencing. (Windsor-Essex County Humane Society)

A southern Ontario man admits he bound a dog's snout, neck and legs with electrical tape and left it for dead behind a shopping centre in Windsor, Ont.

As disturbing as the crime was, it's his punishment that has the legal and human rights communities talking.

Michael Hill, of Amherstburg, Ont., a small town just southwest of Windsor, was sentenced to two years in prison and three years probation, and is banned from owning a pet for 25 years. But legal experts find the unusual move to force Hill to give a DNA sample most interesting.

CBC Forum on DNA and privacy

"A fingerprint is like the cover of a book, it identifies the book ... DNA samples are like the entire book and police simply don't need that much information." — a comment from A finger print is like the… on the CBC Forum chat on DNA and privacy. Read the full discussion here.

In her ruling this week, Justice Micheline Rawlins of Ontario Superior Court also ordered Hill to get psychological counselling.

"People who become serial killers begin with small animals," she told court after ordering Hill to submit his DNA to a national databank that police across Canada use to solve crimes.

The punishment in the animal cruelty case marks a turning point in those dealing with animal cruelty, according to University of Alberta law professor Peter Sankoff. However, civil liberty advocates question the use of such DNA orders.

Sankoff commended the court for issuing stiffer penalties and has no issues with taking a person's DNA in cases of particularly violent crimes against animals.

People who become serial killers begin with small animals, Ontario Court Justice Micheline Rawlins said in her ruling. (Windsor-Essex County Humane Society/Facebook)

"I'm all for it. I think it's a great idea," he told CBC News, suggesting the stiff punishment for Hill indicates judges are taking animal cruelty cases much more seriously.

"It used to be regarded that animal abuse was this trivial little thing," Sankoff said. "It was regarded as, sort of, a second-class misdemeanor."

Protecting privacy

Civil liberty advocates don't support the type of DNA order issued by Rawlins, arguing they invade privacy.

Forcing a person to give up his or her DNA on the presumption that person may commit a future crime violates civil rights, said Denis Rancourt, a researcher with Ontario Civil Liberties Association.

"Because it's an unknown and future crime, there should be a presumption of innocence and therefore there are no reasonable grounds for an invasion of a person's privacy," he said.

He also said seeing these orders in animal abuse cases can be an indication the legal system is invading people's privacy too often.

"This particular case seems to suggest that because the case did not involve the accused person's DNA in any way, it would appear to me to be an abuse."

Other aspects of Hills punishment drew particular interest, as well. 

Sentence 'right on,' says lawyer

Hill's two-year sentence is less than half the five-year maximum allowed, but it and the DNA order send a strong message to the public, according to Windsor criminal lawyer Laura Joy.

"I think it's right on. It certainly deals with deterrence," she said. "If you're going to inflict unnecessary pain and suffering on an animal, you are going to be treated very harshly in the courts as well as in the public arena."

Prohibiting people from owning pets is particularly rare, Sankoff said.

He agreed that the punishment will act as a strong deterrent. 

"It's obviously a good result if you're interested in cracking down on animal cruelty," he said. "It's one of the highest sentences I've ever seen for an animal cruelty case."

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