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Johnna Seeton v. John T. Adams

August 9, 2012

JOHNNA SEETON, APPELLANT
v.
JOHN T. ADAMS,
DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF BERKS COUNTY,
(IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY ONLY)



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Leavitt

Argued: March 13, 2012

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE LEAVITT

Johnna Seeton, Humane Society Police Officer of Berks County, appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County dismissing her action against the District Attorney of Berks County. Seeton seeks a writ of mandamus to compel the District Attorney to prosecute the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association for conducting a live pigeon shoot in a manner that Seeton believes to have violated the Animal Cruelty Law, 18 Pa. C.S. §5511. Concluding that the trial court did not err in holding that the District Attorney's exercise of prosecutorial discretion is beyond the reach of a writ of mandamus, we affirm.

As the County's Humane Society Police Officer, Seeton has responsibility to enforce the Animal Cruelty Law. 22 Pa. C.S. §3708(a).*fn1 Her enforcement tools include the authority "to initiate criminal proceedings" and civil injunction proceedings. 18 Pa. C.S. §5511(i).*fn2 The Animal Cruelty Law proscribes, inter alia, the wanton and cruel treatment of animals and states, in relevant part, as follows:

(1) A person commits an offense if he wantonly or cruelly illtreats, overloads, beats, otherwise abuses any animal, or neglects any animal as to which he has a duty of care, whether belonging to himself or otherwise, or abandons any animal, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter or veterinary care, or access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal's body heat and keep it dry.

18 Pa. C.S. §5511(c)(1) (emphasis added).

In December 2009, Seeton filed two criminal citations with a magisterial district judge that charged the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association with wanton and cruel treatment of pigeons at its October 18, 2009, "live pigeon shoot." In these "sporting" events, pigeons are placed into a trap and launched into the air to be fired upon by members of the club and their guests. The goal is to shoot the pigeons so they fall within a designated scoring area. Pigeons that do not die after being shot are corralled by "trapper boys" and dispatched by having their necks broken or their heads cut off. The wounded pigeons that escape the trapper boys either die a slow death or survive their wounds to live in the wild. The citations alleged that the treatment of injured pigeons violated the Animal Cruelty Law, 18 Pa. C.S. §5511(c)(1).

These criminal citations were not Seeton's first effort to enforce the Animal Cruelty Law against the Sportsmen's Association's live pigeon shoots. In 2001, Seeton filed a suit in equity against the Sportsmen's Association seeking, inter alia, a permanent injunction against future pigeon shoots. The gravamen of her 2001 complaint was the treatment of birds wounded in the pigeon shoot; the complaint recognized that live pigeon shoots are not, per se, illegal in Pennsylvania. The trial court issued a narrow injunction, ordering the Sportsmen's Association to treat injured birds in a "reasonable and non-abusive manner."*fn3

Order of February 14, 2012, at 1. The court denied Seeton's broad injunction request, holding that there was no legal authority for shutting down the pigeon shoot or for ordering the sponsors of the event to provide veterinary care to birds that were injured, but not killed, in the shoot.

On December 14, 2009, four days after Seeton filed her criminal citations, the District Attorney of Berks County, John T. Adams, contacted her and directed her to withdraw the criminal citations. The District Attorney advised Seeton that, contrary to her belief, it is well settled that live pigeon shoots do not violate the Animal Cruelty Law and, therefore, he could not prosecute her citations. He advised her to pursue civil remedies to the extent she believed that the Sportsmen's Association had violated the 2001 injunction.

Seeton refused to withdraw the citations. On December 28, 2009, the District Attorney wrote the district magistrate and directed him to withdraw the citations. On January 13, 2010, the district magistrate complied, removing the citations from the docket. When Seeton challenged the District Attorney's actions, he responded in an e-mail, explaining, in relevant part, as follows:

On April 16, 2002, Judge Scott Lash of the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County issued an opinion and ruling ... that in pertinent part stated that pigeon shoots do not constitute a violation of 5511(c) Cruelty to Animals. Judge Lash also cites for support of that position the case of Mohler v. Labor Day Committee, 663 A2d 162. Furthermore, Judge Lash in that same case stated that the deprivation of veterinary care language found in 5511(c) does not apply to pigeon shoots. As I have told many of your fellow supporters, I understand your plight but I am bound to follow the law. The law as stated in Judge Lash's opinion is clear. My strong suggestion is that your only way to combat the law as set forth in the cases cited above is to lobby your state legislators to have them amend the Cruelty to Animals Statute, 18 Pa. C.S.A. 5511 to set forth that these type of events (pigeon shoots) are illegal....

Reproduced Record at 5a (R.R. ___) (emphasis added).

On July 7, 2010, Seeton filed an action in mandamus seeking to compel the District Attorney to prosecute the Sportsmen's Association for the alleged violations of the Animal Cruelty Law arising from its pigeon shoot of October 18, 2009. The complaint asserted that the District Attorney has a mandatory duty to enforce the Crimes Code, including those provisions that make up the Animal Cruelty Law, and that he had refused to fulfill that duty by withdrawing the criminal citations Seeton issued to the Sportsmen's Association. The complaint acknowledged that pigeon shoots do not per se violate the Animal Cruelty Law, but it asserted that the mistreatment of wounded birds was criminally actionable. The complaint further asserted that it was proper for the court to review the District Attorney's exercise of prosecutorial discretion because it was based upon a mistake of law.*fn4

On July 29, 2010, the District Attorney filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer. The demurrer was based upon the theory that a district attorney cannot be compelled by a writ of mandamus to exercise his prosecutorial discretion in a particular way, which includes the initiation or continuation of criminal proceedings. The demurrer also noted that Seeton had other remedies at law. Specifically, Seeton could pursue contempt if she believed the Sportsmen's Association was in violation of the 2001 injunction.

On October 29, 2010, the trial court sustained the District Attorney's preliminary objections and dismissed Seeton's complaint. The trial court held that a writ of mandamus was not available to review the decisions of the District Attorney. In relevant part, the trial court explained:

We hold that Seeton, in her capacity as a police officer, is without authority to challenge discretionary acts of the district attorney. As she is not a proper party with a clear right to relief as required to sustain a mandamus action, she, therefore, is without standing to bring this action.

Our determination stems from the role and functions of the office of district attorney. As stated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Stipetich, 539 Pa. 428, 430, 652 A.2d 1294, 1295 (1995):

It is well established that district attorneys, in their investigative and prosecutorial roles, have broad discretion over whether charges should be brought in any given case. "A district attorney has a general and widely recognized power to conduct criminal litigation and prosecutions on behalf of the Commonwealth, and to decide whether and when to prosecute, and whether and when to continue or discontinue a case."

In this case, Seeton, like the District Attorney, is acting on behalf of the Commonwealth, but in her capacity as a police officer. In this capacity, she is granted the authority to conduct investigations, issue citations and make arrests, but the extent of her prosecutorial abilities is limited, being subject to the authority of the district attorney. The district attorney is by our constitution and by statute, the chief law enforcement official of the county in which he sits. There is no support in the law permitting a subordinate law enforcement official to challenge the District Attorney's decision on matters which lie within his discretion. To permit such a challenge would allow police to bypass or ignore a decision of the district attorney in any case where they believed that he committed a mistake of law, thereby undermining his status and compromising his ability to oversee law enforcement in his county.

Trial Court Opinion at 5-7 (citations omitted) (emphasis added). Seeton appealed to this Court.

On appeal,*fn5 Seeton raises three issues for our review. First, she contends that the trial court erred in dismissing her complaint because she has a clear legal right to a writ of mandamus to compel the District Attorney's enforcement of the Animal Cruelty Law. Second, she argues that the trial court erred by sua sponte raising the issue of her standing to file her complaint. Third, she argues that the trial court erred in holding that she lacked standing to enforce the Animal Cruelty Law.*fn6

We begin with Seeton's argument that the trial court erred in holding that she did not have a clear legal right to relief. She contends that, contrary to the trial court's conclusion, mandamus draws no distinction between subordinate law enforcement officials and private citizens. She further contends that although the decision to prosecute is discretionary, courts may review a public official's exercise of discretion where it is alleged that the exercise was arbitrary, fraudulent, or based upon a mistaken view of the law and correct the erroneous exercise of discretion by writ of mandamus. Seeton contends that the District Attorney's decision to withdraw her citation was based upon a mistaken view of the law and, therefore, can be corrected by writ of mandamus.

We begin with a review of the principles of mandamus. The common law writ of mandamus lies to compel a public official's performance of a ministerial act or a mandatory duty. It is not available to revise a public official's decision that results from the exercise of discretion. 18 STANDARD PENNSYLVANIA PRACTICE 2D ยง99:18 (2005). Mandamus is a high prerogative writ that is rarely issued and never where the plaintiff seeks to interfere with a public official's exercise of discretion. Rather, mandamus is appropriate to compel a public official to fulfill a mandatory duty that is ministerial in nature. As explained by this Court, [t]he ...


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