Dogs in the Courtroom: The Increasingly Widespread Use of Facility Dog’s in Courtrooms
What is a Facility Dog?
A facility dog is placed with an individual who will use the facility dog within his or her profession. The individual that the dog is placed with is usually referred to as a primary handler. A facility dog could be used in a variety of professions. Hospitals are a common example of a location where facility dogs are used to ease anxiety in patients.
In the legal world, a facility dog would be used for therapeutic reasons in a courtroom or potentially in other legal settings. Sometimes, these types of dogs are referred to as courtroom dogs or courthouse dogs. Specifically, the courtroom dog would accompany a victim or witness during pretrial settings, courtroom testimony settings, and during sentencing. The handler for a courtroom dog would be someone who works in the courthouse and within the legal profession. A victim advocate would be a great primary handler for a courtroom facility dog. This is because victim advocates interact closely with victims of crimes, and a courtroom facility dog is commonly used in connection with victims.
A courtroom dog is unique to other types of facility dogs and service dogs because it has temporary handlers, in addition to the primary handler. These temporary handlers are likely to be the victims or witnesses of a case. The victim or witness could hold the dog’s leash or pet the dog while testifying in front of a jury to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that comes with such a daunting task. The primary handler of the courtroom dog would not have control of the dog while a victim is testifying because the dog would likely be by the victim or witness’s feet, as seen in the photograph above.
Facility dogs are not to be confused with service animals. A facility dog does not have the same kind of public access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because they are not considered service animals. Service animals are given full public access even where a location might have otherwise not allowed pets. Service animals may retrieve dropped items, alert their handler to a sound, and/or pull a wheelchair. These are just some of the tasks that service animals may be trained to do. Service animals may serve as guide dogs for those with impaired vision, sensory dogs for those with autism, and hearing dogs for those with impaired hearing. Individuals with a service animal typically cannot be denied entry into businesses and other spaces open to the public.
The American Bar Association (ABA) recently recognized the importance of having facility dogs in a courtroom. Courtroom dogs help victims or witnesses open up and talk about difficult topics, and the ABA recognizes the importance of those testifying feeling free to speak their truth. The ABA passed and adopted a resolution in 2021 urging governments from the local level through the federal level to implement legislation authorizing the use of facility dogs by victims and witnesses participating in any process of the criminal justice system.
Response From Use of Facility Dogs
Overall, the response towards the use of facility dogs in a courtroom has been positive. The National Judicial College (NJC) took a poll from alumni in 2020 regarding whether or not they would allow a victim to use a facility dog while testifying. The NJC is the only college in the United States established to teach judges. Nearly nine out of ten alumni responded affirmatively. The main opposition against the use of facility dogs lies with defense attorneys who believe that the use of a facility dog may be prejudicial towards their client.
There has been controversy regarding whether the use of a facility dog increases the victimization of a victim testifying and thus, leads to the defendant being prejudiced. Little research has proven that it is likely for a defendant to be prejudiced due to the presence of a facility dog in the courtroom with a victim.
In 2019, a study was conducted to determine whether the use of facility dogs by victims could lead to prejudice towards a defendant. This study consisted of a mock trial with a mock case. The victims and witnesses had either a teddy bear or a facility dog with them when testifying. The study found that the use of a facility dog was not likely to increase a jury’s sympathy towards the victim or witness. Therefore, it was not likely to be prejudicial towards the defendant. Alternatively, the study did find that the use of a teddy bear by a victim on the stand may be prejudicial towards a defendant due to the increased victimization of the victim.
Some courts have also taken steps to limit possible prejudice towards a defendant when a courtroom dog is being used by a victim or witness. Methods to limit prejudice have consisted of: cautioning the jury, taking steps to make sure that the dog is not noticeable, additional jury instructions, and bringing the dog in and out of the courtroom without the jury present.
State’s Allowing Facility Dogs
Eighteen states have enacted legislation allowing for the use of facility dogs in courtroom settings. North Carolina is not included in that number, but several counties have incorporated facility dogs into their courtroom proceedings. In 2017, Johnston County incorporated the use of a courtroom dog named Teghan. Teghan’s primary handler is an assistant district attorney in Johnston County. New Hanover County also incorporated a courtroom dog named Potter in 2017. Potter was the first facility dog to be used in a courtroom in North Carolina.
There are currently 41 states using facility dogs in courthouses. Facility dogs are still being used in local courtrooms even though numerous states have not created laws allowing for the use of facility dogs in state courtrooms.
Jurisdictions that have enacted legislation have typically applied different standards of proof for determining when a facility dog can or cannot accompany a victim or witness into a courtroom. The first standard of proof requires that the defendant must show why they would be prejudiced. The second standard of proof requires the individual applying to use a facility dog in the courtroom to show it is a necessity. Lastly, some jurisdictions have codified the burden of proof for the accommodation of using a facility dog in the courtroom. For example, Washington’s burden of proof was codified as asking if the dog’s presence was necessary.
Courtoom dogs have helped children who are victims of sexual abuse. In one instance, a 10-year-old girl was put in the difficult position of explaining the type of abuse she received to a room of adults during a pretrial meeting. The facility dog entered the room, and the little girl started playing with the dog. This allowed the little girl to feel confident enough to open up and feel a little more at ease when speaking about her abuse.
Recently, a courtroom dog named Tibet was used during the Ronnie Oneal trials in Tampa, Florida. Mr. Oneal was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and his daughter. He also attempted to kill his son. Mr. Oneal’s son was the only one alive to talk about what happened, other than the defendant. Tibet was there for the boy to pet while he told his story. That story allowed the prosecutor to receive enough information to go forward with the charges and secure a conviction.
This concept is being received around the globe. Several other countries have started to implement similar systems into their criminal justice systems. For example, Ireland has started the process of helping minors receive the option of having a facility dog when testifying in criminal matters. Another example is the Justice Facility Dogs program located in Canada. This program was established to help other programs that were interested in creating facility dog training programs.
It seems that the use of facility dogs in the courtroom is spreading internationally. The largely positive response from the use of facility dogs in the legal system has encouraged many states to enact legislation to allow facility dogs to assist in a variety of ways.