Judge Williamson denies motion for summary judgment, raises constitutional concerns
Sheriff Alex Hodge may have violated the constitutional rights of the owners of five pets that were seized in a high-profile raid on Lyon Ranch Road in July, according to an order that was handed down by Jones County Circuit Court Judge Dal Williamson.
The judge ordered that Lt. Col. David and Mary Ellen Senne’s attorney J. Ronald Parrish “make the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi a party” to their complaint because of the questions of the constitutionality of the seizure of their five dogs by the Humane Society of the United States and Hodge.
Williamson denied motions for summary judgment that were filed by attorneys for Hodge and HSUS and Parrish. He ordered that Parrish get a ruling from the AG’s office within 30 days before proceeding. The Sennes filed a complaint of replevin against Hodge and HSUS, demanding the return of their five personal pets that were not supposed to be seized. Video and written documents verified the Sennes’ claim that their pets weren’t supposed to be seized along with the 80-plus animals on the property that were taken into custody of HSUS, and those were mentioned in the judge’s order.
The Animal Surrender Form of HSUS was included in the court file, and it said all animals on the property were to be seized “with the exception of” Miss Poo, Loco, Sister Angel, Precious and Abby. Those were five dogs, between the ages of 12 and 20 with various medical problems, that the Sennes kept in their home. Video of the HSUS spokeswoman saying those five dogs wouldn’t be taken was also included in the evidence.
Still, the animals were taken from the property, and that was one of several things Williamson found troubling, he wrote in his order. “The representation by the HSUS spokesperson that the household pets would not be seized … It is not known whether these representations were made with knowledge of their falsity or ignorance of the truth.”
Other points the judge found problems with include:
• The affidavit for the search warrant Sheriff’s Lt. David Ward obtained “never mentions cruel treatment, neglect or abandonment of any of the five dogs kept within the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Senne.”
• There appeared to be no “special need for very prompt action,” as required by Mississippi Code for the seizure of animals, “as evidenced by the 7-1/2-week delay between the onsite inspection by the SCAR representatives and the obtainment and execution of a seizure warrant.
• The requirement of a bond ($4,750 for the care of the five dogs) within three days of the request of a prior hearing … “even though there was no probable cause demonstrated as to these five animals and even though the Sennes may ultimately be acquitted of the charges as to those animals.”
• The Motion for Order of Forfeiture by the County Prosecuting Attorney and the Order of Forfeiture and Release of Seized Animals by the Justice Court were both filed on the same day (July 19) without notice of any hearing on the motion given to the Sennes.
Parrish alleges that his clients’ constitutional rights were violated, with the seizure of their pets, and the court “finds this to be a sufficient notice pleading of the Plaintiffs’ request to find the statutory authority pursued in this case to be unconstitutional.”
The judge showed case law in which seizures had been allowed without the opportunity for a prior hearing, but all of those cases were related to matters of important government or general public interest involving the IRS, needs during war, to protect against economic disaster or to protect the public from contaminated food or misbranded drugs.
The question of whether the Sennes’ five household dogs, in a “possible misdemeanor” case, constituted an “extraordinary situation” requiring “very prompt action” was taken to task by the court with the following timeline:
• May 18, 2018 - Visit by the Southern Cross Animal Rescue representatives — Heather Williams, Stacy Thrash. Savannah Pipkens and Leanne Brewer — to the property of Mr. and Mrs. Senne;
• July 9, 2018 - The four SCAR representatives sign an affidavit about their visits to the Sennes’ property;
• July 10, 2018. - Lt. David Ward of the Jones County Sheriff’s Department executes an affidavit for a search warrant before Chancellor Frank McKenzie;
• July 10, 2018 - Chancery Court Chancellor Frank McKenzie executes warrant for search and seizure
The delay between the visit by SCAR reps and their affidavits “is a strong indication that this was not such an ‘extraordinary situation’ with ‘a special need for very prompt action,’” Williamson wrote.
The judge’s order included some background from the case, noting that SCAR had, in the past, transferred care of animals that no one wanted to the Sennes as an alternative to the animals being killed. The Sennes said they were “overwhelmed with the number of animals they cared for,” but they could not turn an animal down, including those “dumped upon them” by SCAR.
Agents of SCAR visited the property on May 18 and made photographs that “revealed what appeared to be widespread crimes involving cruelty to animals,” and they contacted HSUS. Ward obtained a search warrant and forfeiture warrant from McKenzie on July 10 based upon the affidavits of SCAR members.
The Sennes have been trying to get their dogs back for months, but Hodge has said, through his and HSUS’ attorneys, that he doesn’t know where the dogs are.
Parrish has accused the sheriff and HSUS of orchestrating a “publicity stunt” with his clients, “parading them” in front of TV cameras after arresting them and subjecting them to body-cavity searches for an alleged misdemeanor. Col Senne suffers from dementia and is a Purple Heart recipient for injuries he suffered in Vietnam.
“I hope that the sheriff and his cohorts haven’t murdered this elderly couple’s pets,” Parrish said.
He said that HSUS is “nothing but a political organization that endorsed Barack Obama for president” and said “they don’t run a single animal shelter in the United States.”
He also noted that the organization’s longtime leader, Wayne Pacelle, was forced to resign last year after allegations of sexual harassment.