Supreme Court deems wording of Animal Welfare Bill unconstitutional

February 1, 2017

Costa Rica’s Animal Welfare Bill – which seeks to establish harsher punishments, including prison time, for abusing or killing animals – has suffered a new setback.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, ruled that the wording of two articles of Bill #18,298, already approved in a first-round vote at the Legislative Assembly, is unconstitutional.

A majority of Sala IV justices considered that two articles describing fines and prison sentences for those who kill or harm “non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and octopods,” violates the principles of reason and proportionality because of the broad range of animals included.

Lawmakers introduced the detailed list following a previous Sala IV ruling in October. The original draft of the bill used the word “animals,” and justices at the time ruled that the term was too broad.

Following the amendment to the bill’s wording, a group of 11 lawmakers who oppose the bill filed a new consultation before the Sala IV challenging the constitutionality of the new draft.

Not binding

Justices noted that their ruling constitutes a clarification and is therefore not binding; lawmakers are not obliged to abide by it. The judges’ opinion could serve as the foundation of a new challenge of the bill before the Sala IV, however, causing the annulment of the questioned articles of the law.

Justices dismissed all other claims filed by the lawmakers. They said in their ruling that all changes related to proposed prison sentences and monetary fines are no longer disproportional.

The maximum prision time was lowered from three to two years, and fines – for example, for not picking up a pet’s droppings in a public space – went from ₡848,000 to ₡212,000 (from $1,500 to $376).

Long road for approval

Lawmakers passed the Animal Welfare Bill in a first round vote in July 2016. In September, the Sala IV deemed disproportional the prison sentences of up to three years for hurting or killing an animal, as well as sanctions and monetary fines of  of up to two base salaries (some $1,500) for individuals found guilty of animal cruelty.

“Cruelty” as defined by those articles would include promoting animal fights, breeding or training animals to increase their aggressiveness, or any action that could cause loss of limb or disability.

Justices also objected to an article proposing monetary fines for neglecting an animal, keeping animals permanently tied up, failing to provide them with medical treatment or medicine, and intentionally provoking pain.

The bill now will go back to a legislative committee for further amendment. Then it will be put up for discussion and vote in a second and final round of debate before the Full Assembly.

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