Lawyers for the three Pets In Need employees facing trial in the deaths of seven puppies last year will ask a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge next week to let them to enter a diversion program instead of going through a trial and a possible jail sentence, according to court documents.
The diversion program, which is usually used for people who've committed low-level offenses and some misdemeanor crimes, would allow the three defendants — shelter operations manager Patricia Santana Valencia, former behavior manager Margaret Evans and former human resources manager Ingrid Hartmann — to perform community service or engage in other activities ordered by the court. Once they complete the terms of the diversion program, their records would be expunged.
But the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office opposes the diversion proposal "due to the devastating nature of the crime as well as their profession of (being) animal caregivers," prosecutors wrote in an opposition brief.
Valencia, Evans and Hartmann are each accused of a misdemeanor charge of failure to give proper care and attention to an animal and inhumane transport of an animal. They are scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 9. The three transported the 12-week-old puppies and 21 other animals from the Central Valley in a van in 90-degree heat in August 2021. Three necropsy reports, though inconclusive, found the puppies likely died from heat stroke or asphyxiation.
Prosecutors allege the employees neglected to give the puppies and other dogs adequate water and packed too many dogs into the van, which allegedly didn't have adequate air conditioning in the back portion where the animals were secured in cages.
The defendants say they followed protocol and claim they checked on the puppies during a stop in Los Banos, a city in Merced County, before heading to the Palo Alto facility. The puppies were healthy at that time, they said, according to court documents.
State law gives judges the discretion to grant pretrial diversion if the defendants meet the standards of "suitability." The law in part characterizes suitable defendants as those who are "minimally involved in crime and maximally motivated to reform."
If they are granted diversion and have satisfied all of the terms of the court order, the charges will be dismissed and the women won't need to report that they were ever arrested. The information will remain in the California Department of Justice system, however, which can be disclosed if a peace officer requests the information. The women would also need to disclose their arrest if they are looking for a job as a police officer, according to the law.
Attorneys for the three women pointed to their clean records and, for Valencia and Evans, years of unblemished work with animals. Valencia has 20 years of experience and has rescued thousands of animals without a similar incident, according to the court petition for the diversion program.
"It is true that Pets In Need had limited guidelines for the transport of animals prior to the incident. New guidelines are now completed with the assistance of a licensed veterinarian and other animal experts," the defense attorneys wrote. The employees followed the limited Pets In Need guidelines.
The dogs were given a limited amount of water to prevent the young animals from car sickness, the attorneys said. Some of the dogs had already vomited before they were transported by Pets In Need when they had been driven in an air conditioned vehicle by a volunteer from a Central Valley shelter to meet up with the Pets In Need staff. The dogs were likely already ill at the time of pickup, but the volunteer hadn't provided any additional information about the animals that would have led to an inspection by a veterinarian prior to Pets In Need staff taking them, attorneys said.
But prosecutors noted that video evidence showed the puppies were happy to play outside in a shaded area at the Chowchilla volunteer's home. Evans' and Valencia's long professional experience makes the puppies' deaths all the more egregious and therefore doesn't meet the standards for the diversion program, prosecutors said.
"The defendants' association with Pets In Need should have caused them to be even more vigilant with respect to the seven puppies' welfare. Instead this conduct was even worse than what the law tolerates for ordinary, knowledgeable people who understand the care of animals. It is functionally the same as leaving a dog alone in a hot car," prosecutors wrote.
Valid criteria for not offering diversion includes if there was violent conduct that presents a serious danger to society. While that criteria usually pertains to physical violence, "the inhumane transport of animals is inherently tied to bodily harm. Their conduct presents serious risk to the safety of animals," prosecutors wrote in their opposition brief.
Hartmann, who was newly hired to be the human resources manager, claimed in her petition for the judicial diversion program that she was only present in a "ride-along" capacity, which Pets In Need requires of all new hires.
Prosecutors wrote that Hartmann's characterization of her role went beyond a mere ride-along.
"She chose to participate, moving the puppies out of spaced-out crates to the harsh conditions of the van. She knew there was no drinking water," prosecutors wrote.
The defendants have not admitted any responsibility for the puppies' deaths. Instead, they have chosen to blame the Central Valley shelter volunteer and the inadequacy of Pets In Need's protocols — reasons why they don't meet the standards for judicial diversion, the prosecutors said.
While strongly opposing diversion for the defendants, the prosecutors also asked the judge to consider an alternative request. If the court is inclined to grant diversion, the prosecution asked for terms of one year with no new law violations, 160 hours of service through the Sentencing Alternatives Program and documentation showing that Pets In Need has changed its practices and procedures to the extent that if the defendants continue to work as animal caregivers the court can be assured that this type of tragedy is prevented in the future.
Since the incident, Evans has left Pets In Need and has been unable to find a job in her field, attorneys said. Hartmann has also left Pets In Need. Valencia is still employed at the animal shelter as a shelter operations manager, according to court documents and the nonprofit.