Webinar presenter Amy Taylor and Michelle Welch answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Advanced Techniques in Dog Fighting Investigations. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: You talked about how there’s a wide range for timelines for cases. You talked about at the very beginning of your presentation where you were able to kind of compress the timeline and there were others that you worked for 10 years. Have you found any commonalities that seem to make a case go faster or impede a case or make you go for a longer period of time?
Amy Taylor: Let me say that I have seen a dramatic change in jurisdictions wanting to do animal fighting cases. There was a time where the door would get slammed in my face because they did not want to do the case because people didn’t understand it or they had to hold animals for such a long period of time. Now we are seeing a change where we actually are having jurisdictions contact us wanting to do the cases. I think it’s been through the team that we have with the task force, the attorney general’s office and the state vet’s office working together and having good outcomes and prosecution that we’re seeing jurisdictions are no longer afraid of it because we’re able to give them resources and help. I know there are a lot of places that don’t have resources and help. There are resources out there. You need to identify them. You need to foster that relationship. I do think that with social media, that has sped up some of the investigation process. I mean my first case people didn’t even have cellphones. I had a pager when I had to respond to the call and I had to call dispatch in like 7-eleven to find out where I was going. Social media has changed things and our ability. There are also forensic capabilities that have changed, in our case recently we did a lot with some blue star and a state lab and testing of things. It doesn’t take us months to get cellphones analyzed anymore. It’s fostering relationship and figuring out the resources and what resources are there that have moved things along in my opinion.
Michelle Welch: I think the only thing I can add is don’t be in a rush. I get the caller and they want some excitement. You really have to build your case so you have a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Audience Question: How do you go about educating your judges Michelle in order to understand more of the unique issues around dogfighting cases? Are you finding the judges are pretty up to speed on this topic and they are ready and willing to listen?
Michelle Welch: I think some of them are. I was pleasantly surprised in our Dinwiddie case and the judge really got it. He had heard all of the evidence. It was a jury trial, we had put on all of our evidence, and he had a whole day of really hearing the evidence. He sentenced the defendant to ten years. I asked for 15 years on that. The next time I was before a judge, he was a little flippant. I will say if you are the prosecutor, you’re going to get all kinds. Remember, I go all over Virginia. One day I might be in a very liberal jurisdiction, the next day a very conservative maybe rural jurisdiction. You just have to hold their feet to the fire. You have to be unapologetic about your cases. I think that’s kind of my superpower. I go in and I start to treat it as seriously as any other violent crime because it is a violent crime. I think that’s what you argue. In the case, I was talking about the judge that said, “It was like the two dogs were playing to me.” I say, “I’m really sorry judge but you’re going to have to watch that video again. We’re going to go through it. I want you to look at the dog faces they have blood all over their faces.” Maybe he was just taunting me. Maybe he just didn’t get it. I was unapologetic, I stood my ground. I asked him for ten years and I only got a 2 years sentence. Is this sentence a good sentence? The bottom line is you have to appear before judges in a professional way. There’s no crying. I’ve said that many times. You don’t get to cry just because it is an animal. You go in. You act as if it’s a murder trial. You demand serious consideration of these cases.
Amy Taylor: I say that if you do the research that we’ve done and the cases that we’ve seen, we emphasize the link between animal crimes and violence. When Michelle is litigating she tends to bring up their criminal record, if it’s part of that case. Once we get to the sentencing stage if we know that this person is a sex offender, if this person has a violent past or background, we do bring it in there and show the links between them
Audience Question: Amy, are there any social media software tools that you use in your investigation and monitoring?
Amy Taylor: That’s a hard one. I use social media sort of the good old fashioned way. Let’s face it, when I went to high school, we didn’t have a computer in high school. I’m a pen and paper person. I do find that when I use certain search tools like even Cellebrite which is the program that you use when you are analyzing cellphone and you can use it for even social media analysis. It will itself miss things or will make your search very very broad. I do use Cellebrite when I am analyzing certain things. I do it the old fashioned way. Unfortunately, I really do like trees but a lot of times I do have to print things out so that I can make notes then put post it on the wall and tape things together. It is labor-intensive but you do find more information combing through it that way.
Audience Question: I’ve tried to do social media aliases but Facebook forces you to use your real name. What should we do?
Amy Taylor: I think that’s interesting that we all have real names but we don’t. We’ve all been able to set them up. You do need to use a name of some sort and sort of create the alias. For example, we have a P.O Box. That establishes the P.O. box in that name. It’s got a mailing address attached to it. We became friends with our cellphone carriers that we use for the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force. They allowed us to get a telephone number in the name of our alias. Start with honing the relationship and finding out ways around those sort of things. Like I said, our alias has a phone number and has an address. You need to figure out a way that you can get to it like I said establishing something like a P.O. box is great.
Audience Question: On average how long does it take to get a response from a social media warrant?
Amy Taylor: Actually, it’s fairly quick. I believe usually once a warrant has been executed, so you’ve served a warrant, they have 10 days to respond to that warrant. They, in some cases, may ask you for something more. They have to at least respond to the warrant usually within about 10 days.
You also have to do, I believe it’s in the handout, you need to have your district attorney, your commonwealth attorney have to file with the social media company that it is sealed so they don’t alert the suspects that you are accessing their information. Remember to do that.
Audience Question: Why is using drones so different than actually using planes for doing the flyovers? You talked a little bit about that that there were some issues there. Could you kind of expand on that a little bit?
Michelle Welch: I’ve cited the jurisprudence in the webinar and the difference is you have the expectation of privacy at a certain level above your house. A state plane is going to be flying at an altitude that other planes should be flying. You don’t have any kind of expectations of privacy. For drones, basically, the question that we pose is can we take this drone and fly it over one’s property and look in their window. That’s an invasion of privacy, right? That’s a constitutionally protected right. So, no, you can’t do that. Drones they fly at an altitude that from the case law they say there’s an expectation of privacy. You may be in a state that things are perfectly fine. To be sure, look at your own case law. I’m just not comfortable allowing someone to do that yet. I think we’ll get there because everyone’s got a drone now. I think it’s a bright new world and you need to be careful with that technology.
Amy Taylor: In Virginia, there was actually some legislation that passed that stated the only use of a drone without a warrant is at a traffic accident. If it is a massive traffic accident and they need to see who needs help or something like that but other than that, we would have to get a warrant. We can do it with a warrant but that’s a whole other ball of wax.
Michelle Welch: In the case, we didn’t have enough PC for that warrant. There was no way to do it.
Audience Question: For flyovers are animal taskforce personnel on the flight with the pilot to take the photography and all that kind of good stuff? How does that work?
Yes. We do go in the air. Like I said, for us, in particular, we are very lucky that Deputy Samuel works in the jurisdiction that the state police fly out of. Working closely with them through the years he was able to establish a very good solid relationship. Also because they are required to do a certain amount of flight hours each month, sometimes they just want to go up in a plane to go in the plane, so what it’s a better use of their time. We go fly with them. He is a deputy. He is sworn law enforcement. However, they can take other people up with them as long as they have approval from their command staff. It’s part of cultivating the relationship together. When we go up in the plane, we do our own photography. Everything’s ours. The camera’s ours, the memory cards are ours and we’re doing it ourselves. They are just guiding us to where we need the photograph taken.
Michelle Welch: Before we had that relationship, I think Deputy Samuels also has a National Guard at one point help him on that. If your state police won’t do that for you or with you, you might want to try the National Guard.
Amy Taylor: I can also say and you need to check with your policies or a prosecutor but there are a lot of people, retired law enforcement, a retired military that have their personal pilot licenses and they need to fly a certain amount of hours to keep that certification. If you’re going to use somebody that is not law enforcement, I do recommend that you make sure you have an MOU in place and a gag order and all those types of things but there is that ability to use a private aircraft if you need to.
Audience Question: You talked about wildlife cameras. Can you clarify what’s a wildlife camera?
Amy Taylor: A lot of hunters will use a wildlife camera in order to see if deer are running into a certain area or for other reasons. You can purchase them in a lot of the big box stores or a lot of outdoor stores. It’s basically a battery operated camera. It turns itself on when there’s movement. A lot of them do have a night vision attached. They are actually relatively inexpensive for what they are. A lot of jurisdictions that might have a relationship with their state police can only put a pole camera up on a city or county-owned structure. For example, we have one jurisdiction they had a donor donate them I think it was the $85. They went to the big box store, bought a wildlife camera. They are usually camouflaged already and pretty small and compact. The neighbor of this property allowed them to put it up on it so they can see what was going on. It was on their property, it was legally in a place it could be. It was able to show us who was coming and going and any kind of activity happening. That camera went to a remote log-in so they can log-in from their desk and see what was going on at the camera.
Michelle Welch: I also want to say that you could also have a relationship with your Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, (your Wildlife Department in your state) because they may already have wildlife cameras up. We did that in one case. We had the DGIF put up cameras for us because it was near a property that we had permission to put them up or it was government/public property.
Audience Question: Can you talk about some of your best practices for testifying in a case?
Amy Taylor: First of all, you have to know the material. Don’t think that you know everything without really researching it. There are times that I might not have been on the yard at seizure. I was called in later. They say to me you probably don’t need this bit of evidence because it doesn’t mean anything or whatever. I want to look at all of it before I go into it and make sure that I have a full view of all of the evidence they seized. I meet with them. I make sure that I do court prep. If they haven’t scheduled me for court prep, I will badger them until they schedule me for court prep. I don’t want to be surprised. Obviously, the defense can surprise me all day long. I don’t want the prosecutor to surprise me with something. I just want to make sure that what they are using or what the things they have done are reasonable and within the law. I want to make sure that if it’s something sent to the lab that they got the lab report or that kind of thing.
Michelle Welch: We have a list of questions. We have model questions on each topic like each part of the dogfighting operations that we have a battery of questions for the dogs, all kinds of questions about their dogfighting scars even though the vet was the better expert to talk about the scars themselves. I still ask Amy about the dog’s scars because she has seen 100s of dogfighting dogs with scars. She will talk about what her training and experience is. We ask questions about the paraphernalia and how that shows it is a dogfighting operation. I ask questions of Amy about the pedigrees and the certificates. She does talk about them being the currency of dogfighting. Then we also go through the cellphone stuff. She goes into the conversations on the cell phone. It’s all about the preparation with me. If I’m doing my job as the prosecutor, she’s never surprised, she knows exactly what I’m going to ask her. No one needs to be a legend in their own mind. She needs to be prepped. We need to go through each category of dogfighting paraphernalia so she can weigh in on what it is. Even to the point that she will often do the behavioral test on the dog so that she can talk about their demeanor. That’s another piece of evidence of why they’re dogfighting dogs.
Amy Taylor: I think what’s important too is that I enjoy learning and I think that I should continue to learn because as I learn more so do the suspects and criminals. And they change things so that I never say no, no, no that’s not right. I don’t put anything into a package or a box. I’m open to there might be a new way. For example, recently in a case, we know that a lot of these dogfighters are starting to use products like hair dye. They are dying the legs and the scarring to match the dog’s coat so that it can’t be seen from a distance. Like when you’re driving past their house and you see a dog on a chain you might have been able to see that the legs and the head were scarred. But if they had put black hair dye on these dogs and they have a black coat already or match it up. You can’t visually see that from the road. Who would’ve thought right?
Michelle Welch: Ever-evolving.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of Advanced Techniques in Dog Fighting Investigations.