Judge Dal Williamson’s ruling last week in the animal-abuse case against an elderly Jones County couple will, it appears, have a lasting effect on how law enforcement will be able to conduct search and seizures. The case is likely headed to the state Supreme Court and Williamson urged attorneys to get an opinion from the attorney general on the constitutionality of Mississippi law 97-41-2.
This is no longer just an animal case but how far law enforcement can go with search and seizure warrants — and that could have lasting effects on every resident of this county for all those who own pets. In the case involving the Jones County Sheriff’s Department, the Humane Society of the United States, Southern Cross Animal Rescue and Col. David and Mary Ellen Senne, at issue is the status of five dogs of more than 90 seized from the Senne’s property in July.
The probable cause to get a search and seizure warrant came via a visit by four SCAR members in May — more than 50 days before they swore affidavits to what they saw the property. According to the statute, “Such probable cause may be established upon sworn testimony of any person who has witnessed the condition of said animal.” In SCAR’s affidavits, they contend that animals in an octagonal building and a smaller nearby building labeled “Kitty City” contained animals that were being abused. SCAR never visited the Sennes’ residence, at the time a house boat on a lake on the 160-plus-acre property in the Johnson Community.
On that houseboat lived five pets with whom the Sennes had a personal connection. But neither SCAR nor the sheriff’s department ever visited that residence to see if there were dogs and cats being “abused” there. By seeing “alleged abuse” at two buildings, a warrant was issued to search every building on the property. The generality of the warrant is what is in question here. Without personally witnessing the conditions in every building, can a warrant then be issued to legally search and seize property inside those buildings that there was no first-hand knowledge of the conditions?
The Mississippi Constitution is much more stringent in its protections of personal property rights than even the U.S. Constitution and that, too, likely played a role in the decision to seek an attorney general’s opinion.
Of course, we have argued from the start that had the appropriate legwork been done by both SCAR and the sheriff’s department, it likely would have found that these people needed help and were overwhelmed because of their Good Samaritans’ hearts. And despite claims by sheriff’s department representatives that “every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ was crossed” in an “exhaustive three-month investigation” into this case, had any of that been done, we likely wouldn’t be where we are now. In the warrant application, JCSO Lt. David Ward never mentioned cruel treatment, neglect or abandonment of any of those five dogs within the Sennes’ residence.
What likely happened is that SCAR went to the sheriff’s department, as they have done myriad times in the past. The sheriff’s department took SCAR at its word and moved from there. They cut corners, didn’t do the legwork necessary and forgot a few “i’s and t’s” along the way. They then turned it into a media circus, after which most of said circus has long since left town — as we are sure they wish we would, too.
In their Facebook Live TV show from the day of the raid, the sheriff and his underlings repeatedly pushed a narrative to have animal cruelty laws changed.
Now it appears as if they will get their wish, albeit not what they expected. This case will have much more long-lasting effects on how the state deals with abused animals and the lengths to which law enforcement can go to “search and seize” those animals. Locally, we just hope this case will open the sheriff’s eyes to the fact that he and his department did not do their homework on this case — and that is a scary proposition as Hodge seeks a fourth term in office.