A 25-Year Prison Sentence for Beating Up a Dog Is Not Justice

“In early February 2019, a passerby filmed Fonseca as he punched his dog on his porch. He kicked and choked him and hit him with a piece of wood. The video was shared with Animal Care Services (ACS) of San Antonio, which questioned Fonseca, who told them that that was his way of disciplining Buddy. The dog was removed from Fonseca’s home, aided to a full recovery, and placed with a new family that presumably has a better handle on obedience training.

Fonseca, meanwhile, will spend the next 25 years in prison. While I love dogs as much as the next person, this is not justice. Fonseca’s sentence for beating up his pet—which was his property under Texas law—grossly exceeds most punishments Texas dispenses for those convicted of assaulting a human being. Defendants found guilty of an assault causing physical harm face up to a year in prison. When the alleged victim is a government official, security officer, emergency services worker, family member, or date, that punishment may be anywhere from two to 10 years behind bars. And when someone brandishes a deadly weapon and causes serious physical harm, they may land behind bars for anywhere from two to 20 years.

The city of San Antonio boasted about forcing taxpayers to house Fonseca in a steel cage for the next 25 years—for $22,751 annually, well over half a million dollars total—for losing his temper and beating an animal.”

“So why is Fonseca, 56, getting what amounts to a life sentence for hurting his dog? While Norwood’s statement suggests this is about sending a message to other dog punchers, the government says Fonseca had felony priors for crimes of retaliation and drug possession.

It’s difficult to argue with a straight face that a years-old drug possession conviction should be used to increase his sentence for hurting Buddy. Fonseca’s consumption habits may harm himself, but invoking that offense at sentencing is not about keeping San Antonio safe. It is about securing a sentence that would otherwise be impermissible under the law. Access to that kind of leverage is one of the primary reasons law enforcement groups oppose ending the war on drugs.

And while the same cannot be said for “crimes of retaliation,” in which people threaten government workers, Fonseca had already paid his debt to society for that, just as he had for possessing drugs. It’s certainly reasonable to consider a criminal defendant’s history at sentencing—someone who assaults people over and over again, for example, should not receive the same sentence each time.

But even if you find animal cruelty to be abhorrent, as I do, a decades-long prison term is not the appropriate response to all objectionable behavior—something we often forget in the context of the U.S. system, which is utterly addicted to lengthy prison terms. Desensitized bystanders may view Fonseca’s punishment as normal. It shouldn’t be.”

Racial justice groups have never had so much cash. It’s actually hard to spend it.

“During a national crisis, so many people feel moved to give, and that’s great. But it’s best if we don’t all heap money on the same charity. After a certain point, a nonprofit runs out of “room for more funding,” meaning it has enough money to fund all of the work it’s good at doing, so more donations may not be used effectively.”

“It’s also worthwhile to think hard about which causes are being neglected. If bail funds suddenly become hot, do more research into adjacent or underlying issues. Donating to a group that advocates for ending the cash bail system altogether (as MFF does) might actually become a more appealing option. That’s a broader, more systemic change than bailing out a few dozen protesters right now, but it may well do more good in the long term.”

“MFF plans to apply this long-game thinking to its work going forward. It’ll use its $30 million to push for systemic change, including abolishing money bail and overhauling immigration detention. That was always its mission, stated on its website for all to see. The complaint among some donors that this mission isn’t what they signed up for highlights, more than anything, the importance of doing due diligence before donating and adopting a rigorous approach to giving.”