The Americans with Disabilities Act provides for the use of service animals, including in court rooms around the nation, for people with disabilities. However that doesn’t include “emotional-support” animals. Why? Because as of yet, the use of a dog or other therapy animal, by people who aren’t disabled, but need added emotional support during a specific, difficult time, isn’t covered by the law. Here in Michigan, though, our Supreme Court is set to decide on exactly how that will play out in courtrooms all over Michigan in the future.
So how did this issue come about?
It all started back in May of 2016. Dakota Lee Shorter was convicted of third degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County Circuit Court which is in Lansing. During the trial, both the victim, who happens to be Shorter’s young niece, and her brother provided testimony. Because both were struggling emotionally with the process, the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office allowed them to use a support dog during the trial.
What was the result of that trial?
Shorter was later convicted by the jury, but his defense attorney argued that the conviction was tainted because of the presence of the support dog in court. How could a dog make any difference to the outcome of a trial, you ask? Well, according to Shorter’s defense, having an animal present made the victims look more credible, which swayed the jury. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed, and Shorter’s criminal conviction was overturned.
The issue is being hotly debated right now.
In an interview with Michigan Radio (NPR), Michael Sepic who serves as the Berrien County Prosecutor, said that their office has “Mr. Weeber” – a black lab who acts as a support dog for alleged victims, since 2014. “The worst thing that happens, and Mr. Weeber does it occasionally, is he’ll start snoring,” Sepic told Michigan Radio. “There’s nothing about the dog that can twist and turn facts and encourage them to say, you know, things that are embellished or things like that. The dog is just sitting there.” But detractors disagree, saying that the mere presence of a dog can make the witness appear more credible to the jury, and end up affecting the outcome of their decision.
What happens now?
According to the appellate court, allowing an able-bodied adult to testify in court with a dog would be an “unprecedented change”. The only way it could happen, says the appeals court, is through legislation, court rule, or a decision from the Michigan Supreme Court. And that’s exactly what the the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office is hoping for – the Michigan Supreme Court to step in and say it’s okay for emotional support dogs to be used at trials. And will they? We’ll just have to wait and see…
For now, our aggressive criminal defense attorneys will continue to fight for our clients all over the lower peninsula of Michigan. Since the last century, our top criminal defense team has maintained an impressive record of proven results for our clients. You can reach The Kronzek Firm PLC at 1 866-766-5245 (1 866 7NoJail) at any time. We are always available for an immediate crisis consultation.