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Ruff Witnesses: Pennsylvania Court to Analyze the Use of Emotional Support Animals During Trial

March 12, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;">Testifying at Trial can be stressful for anyone. So stressful that some Courts agree to have emotional support animals present during trials. Recently, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Middle District, granted a petition for allowance to appeal in which the Supreme Court will consider if the Superior Court erred in affirming the trial court’s decision to permit a dog to accompany a testifying witness. Additionally, the Court will decide that if a dog can be permitted to accompany a testifying witness, should a showing of need for special accommodation be required prior to its allowance? This will be the first time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider when exactly support animals are proper during trials and what parameters are needed to implement this new guideline.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">This question arose when Sheron Jalen Purnell <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Commonwealth-v.-Purnell.pdf"><em>Commonwealth v. Purnell</em></a> filed a petition for allowance of appeal challenging a May 2020 Superior Court ruling. The Superior Court had affirmed a trial court’s decision to permit a comfort dog to accompany an anxious witness to the stand. The underlying trial involved a 2016 shooting in which one of the witnesses was an autistic minor. This witness was permitted to have a comfort dog at the witness stand.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">While some may argue support animals may cause a distraction for jurors or lead to a more sympathetic jury, support animals may be necessary to aid a material witness in testifying at a trial. With no precedent in Pennsylvania regarding comfort animals, the Supreme Court’s decision could set up guidelines for both criminal and civil trials moving forward and set a more specific framework of when the use of a support dog is appropriate and what need must be shown for this special accommodation.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Madeline Troutman for her  contribution to this article.  Should you have any questions, please contact <a href="mailto:tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Tom Bracken</a>.</p>

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