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Convicted Abuser of Thunder the Wonder Dog Could See Shortened Probation as a Result of State Legislation, Says Mendo DA

The following is a press release issued by the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office:

Thunder the Wonder Dog after his injuries [Pictures provided by the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office]

A little over a year ago, in October 2020, defendant Katie Rhiannon Smith, now age 36, of Caspar, dodged a jury trial by pleading to felony animal abuse with a gun against her former dog, now referred to by many as Thunder the Wonder Dog.

A little less than a year ago, in December 2020, Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clayton Brennan surprised everybody by downgrading that felony conviction to a misdemeanor and then basically punishing the defendant with a very mild slap on the wrist.

So what has happened since those court proceedings in late 2020?

The People’s Appeal:
On behalf of the People of the State of California, the Mendocino County DA authorized an appeal of the criminal proceedings leading up to and including the misdemeanor judgment and sentencing imposed by Judge Brennan, the notice of appeal having been filed later the same day that Judge Brennan reduced defendant Smith’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor.

The appeal remains pending with the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. The parties have fully briefed the issues and the appeal has been taken under submission by the court as of August 13, 2021 pending issuance of a decision. It is not possible to say when that appellate decision will be issued.

New Charges and Probation Violation Proceedings:
Based on an investigation in early 2021 that uncovered that defendant Smith was in possession of live animals in violation of California law, new infraction charges were filed last February against the defendant and a petition alleging she had violated the “obey all laws” portion of her court probation was also filed.

True to his word, the DA disqualified Judge Brennan from hearing the defendant’s new law violations. Judge Brennan also apparently wanted no part of the violation of probation proceedings, so both cases were transferred to Ukiah and eventually assigned to Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Victoria Shanahan.

During a May 12th hearing, during which the defense sought to have both the new charges and the probation violation dismissed “in the interests of justice,” Judge Shanahan ruled that, “the trial court [Judge Brennan] rendered an illegal term, meaning allowing Ms. Smith to possess animals.”

Judge Shanahan continued, in pertinent part, “I think that there is a requirement under the clear reading of the statute that if there was an exception, because once an individual is convicted of 597 [animal abuse], it’s a mandated prohibition to possess animals. It’s mandated. The court does not have discretion to change that unless there’s been a petition filed [which didn’t happen] and a hearing held where the People can be heard in regards to that.”

In denying defendant Smith’s motion to dismiss, Judge Shanahan concluded, in pertinent part, “The sentencing court [Judge Brennan] did not follow [the law] and rendered an illegal sentence in this component…”

With the motion to dismiss resolved against the defendant, the court moved forward to take evidence on both the new law violations and the probation violation allegations.

At the conclusion of evidence on May 18th, defendant Smith was found guilty of the infraction charges of unlawfully possessing animals after having been convicted of animal abuse. She was fined $50.

In this regard, an infraction is a level of violation for which the only punishment authorized by statute is a fine.
Defendant Smith, however, was acquitted of having violated her terms of probation, specifically that she failed to obey all laws, because, as Judge Shanahan ruled, “I think [to find you in violation] would be an unjust result based on the statements made by Judge Brennan giving you an allowance to possess animals, which [was] in direct violation of the statute.”

The defendant’s informal probation was thus reinstated but modified by Judge Shanahan to include a new term that defendant Smith not possess any animals, as mandated by statute, absent a noticed hearing and a court order allowing a different result.

But the court proceedings were not over yet. Deputy District Attorney Josh Rosenfeld, the senior coast prosecutor, renewed a demand for restitution from defendant Smith for the expenses caused others in caring for both Thunder and also now the chickens that were seized from the defendant’s residence (and later forfeited and adopted out).

On November 9, 2021, by stipulation of the parties as accepted by Judge Shanahan, defendant Smith was ordered to pay:

$3,740 to reimburse the Mendocino Coast Humane Society;
$200 to reimburse Sheryl Armstrong; and
$150 to reimburse Mendocino County Animal Control.

Subsequent Law Change:
As reported previously on this page but in the context of a serial arsonist, a majority of the California Legislature in 2020 – including both Assemblyman Wood and Senator McGuire, unfortunately — came to the legislative conclusion that “longer in time” grants of leniency in the form of grants of probation commonly ordered by local judges victimized those convicted of crimes and are thus unfair.

This conclusion was based on the belief that too many probationers were being returned to jail or prison because they kept violating the terms of their probation. It was decided in Sacramento that there would be fewer violations of probation if the legal window of time that a person convicted of a crime could be ordered to spend on probation was dramatically reduced by legislative fiat.

Thus, effective January 1, 2021 and known as Assembly Bill 1950 (now codified as Penal Code section 1203a), the Legislature took away the discretion of local judges, with only a few exceptions, to order or enforce any misdemeanor probation that exceeds 12 months.

In the context of Thunder the Wonder Dog, when Judge Brennan reduced defendant Smith’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor back on December 16th of last year, he then granted her further leniency by purportedly imposing a 36-month term of probation with no jail time, the 36-month probation basically being the primary sanction.

Now, as a result of AB 1950, defendant Smith’s 36-month term of probation will terminate by operation of the change of law at midnight on December 15, 2021, the date and time that the new legislated ceiling of 12-months will have been reached.

Deputy District Attorney Rosenfeld advised Judge Brennan to no avail of this upcoming law change at the sentencing hearing last December, meaning the 36-month probation Judge Brennan granted to defendant Smith – like the felony conviction that Judge Brennan downgraded — was likely intended to be illusory.

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3 replies »

  1. Do you think there may be political favors or cash influencing these mandates. they made these laws now they have to follow them. never did they ask the community what they thought.

  2. They don’t care what the community thinks…we only pay their wages and extras they squeeze out if the system they operate. The peasants are there to dominate and dictate what their lives will be like living under their shortsighted naive and unrealistic laws and regulations. They suck.

  3. What a despicable human being to treat a dog in such a way! Prison should be the verdict of animal abusers! Leniency is not an option for such behavior…

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