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Stark County animal seizure worries agriculture officials

Gary Dassinger, left, and his attorney Thomas Murtha listen as testimony is given by Stark County Sheriff Terry Oestreich about the condition of animals at Dassinger's Gladstone ranch in April during a civil hearing on Monday, June 5. (Sydney Mook/Forum News Service)

DICKINSON, N.D. — While a district court judge decides whether a Gladstone, N.D., man gets to keep his cattle and horses, agriculture groups want to make sure his due process rights — and those of other livestock producers in the future — are protected.

Gerald "Gary" Dassinger of Gladstone, N.D., is accused of abusing or neglecting his horses and cattle and faces several felony and misdemeanor charges related to the accusations. Dassinger says he plans to plead not guilty to the charges. He also says he has veterinarians willing to back him up in court that his animals were not abused or neglected.

The Stark County Sheriff's Department in May filed petitions to seize horses and cattle from Dassinger after local veterinarians said the animals were thin and had problems with parasites and lice. Some of the animals already were on trucks when Dassinger's attorney, Thomas Murtha, filed for a temporary restraining order to stop them from being seized before Dassinger could defend himself. Southwest District Judge Rhonda Ehlis granted the restraining order and will decide whether Dassinger can keep the animals.

Ehlis on June 5 presided over the first part of a hearing in the seizure case at the Stark County Courthouse. A continuation of the hearing is scheduled to begin June 13.

The hearing, the judge explained, was not required by state law. In North Dakota, law enforcement can petition the court for an order to seize animals and to dispose of the animals. Ehlis said she and attorneys in the case agreed to hold a hearing in order to preserve Dassinger's due process rights.

Warren Zenker, president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, says his group sent a letter expressing concern about whether Dassinger had been able to stand up for himself before his property was seized.

"That was a concern to us," he says.

Zenker says the state's animal abuse and neglect law, which covers animal seizures, was updated in 2013 to make it harder to seize animals. It now requires a court order at the request of law enforcement, while previously others, including veterinarians, could do so.

But even though the bar is higher now, Zenker says it's important that people's rights are upheld throughout the process.

"We hope that due process is adhered to in all these situations, that ranchers and producers can tell their stories before they're found to be guilty," he says.

It's the lack of a guilty finding that concerns North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies. Dassinger's animals were to set be seized before he even had been charged with a crime, Lies pointed out. And if his animals are taken and sold or otherwise disposed of and he's later found not guilty of a crime, Lies questions whether the law did what it was supposed to do.

"There's very little recourse" for livestock producers, he says.

"I've been breeding these horse for 40 years, and I have a really good herd of horses," Dassinger says. "And it's like, my 40 years is just going to be gone."

Farm Bureau was not entirely onboard with the 2013 animal abuse law rewrite, in part because the group worried about situations like this cropping up, Lies says. The law now allows for felony abuse charges, and the discussion during the 2013 Legislature was that those charges would be reserved for repeat offenders.

However, Lies says, Dassinger has no prior convictions for animal abuse, and the charges against him say he "intentionally caused the prolonged impairment of an animal's health" by failing "to provide veterinary medical care" for several animals.

The concern is that this case will open up livestock producers to felony charges and animal seizure any time they treat an animal themselves, Lies says.

"That should be concerning to every livestock producer, every livestock owner in the state," he says. "That one thing alone is enough to make us have to readdress this law to make sure things like that can't happen."

Lies and others are afraid animal rights activists could use the law to their advantage, accusing ranchers of abusing animals under normal agricultural practices.

Zenker says he winter grazes cattle right off a state highway. Even though the cattle get feed, they still will dig through snow to find kernels of corn. He always worries the wrong people will see that, misinterpret the cows' actions and report to authorities that he isn't properly feeding his cows.

That's what concerns North Dakota Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson, as well: "The floodgate is opening, and this is the beginning of a very, very bad precedent in our state."

"If I lose this case, it's going to change the industry," Dassinger says.

Simons has gotten involved in Dassinger's case because Dassinger is his constituent. He visited the ranch in Gladstone and reported seeing "fat, sassy cows that were in great shape."

Simons concedes Dassinger's ranch isn't in the greatest condition.

"The place is somewhat rundown," he says. "But I know oodles of farms that are run down. Where are we going to stop?"

He doesn't know how the case will turn out, but he's committed to trying to fix the law to make sure people in similar circumstances are protected.

"No one should be able to seize your property without a day in court," Simons says.

Lies says he's heard from additional legislators interested in giving the state's animal abuse and animal seizure statutes another look during the next legislative session in 2019. Farm Bureau hopes to hear from more livestock producers and start looking at ways to improve the laws.

For Dassinger's part, he's glad he's getting his chance to make his case in court.

"At least as of right now I know they're not hauling my animals off," he says.