Holiday and Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins are training with Purpose Pups of Houlton to become a courthouse dog. Credit: Courtesy of Purpose Pups

HOULTON, Maine — Holiday, the first proposed Maine courthouse facility dog, is so cuddly that she and dogs like her might bias a jury and interfere with the constitutional right to a fair trial, according to the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, introduced a bill in March to permit the use of dogs to comfort witnesses in courtrooms during criminal proceedings, but last week the Legislature’s judiciary committee unanimously voted it down.

The bill — LD 888, An Act to Allow Use of Courthouse Facility Dogs by Criminal Justice Agencies for Criminal Justice Purposes — was inspired by Holiday, a yellow Labrador who lives and trains with Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins, Jackson said.

Maine is among only a handful of states that do not use courthouse facility dogs. There are currently 264 such dogs in 41 states, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

“Though this bill may be well-intended, its unintended effects would be disastrous to the appearance of impartiality and fairness in criminal trials,” said Tina Heather Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, during public testimony before the judiciary committee in March.

Collins, who works out of offices in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou, said despite the ruling last week, he plans to continue bringing Holiday with him to comfort witnesses. If the bill passed, Holiday also would have been allowed in courtrooms during hearings and trials.

“The court provided some glimmer that there is still a path forward, but until we see what policies and rules they come up with, Holiday and I will continue to work toward the goal of providing professional assistance to vulnerable witnesses through the district attorney’s office,” he said.

There are no rules against Holiday working in the district attorney’s office, he said. Additionally, victim witness advocate Valerie Eldridge, who works at the Houlton office, occasionally brings her giant mastiff, Nephi, to comfort victims.

During the judiciary committee’s public hearing on the proposed bill, witnesses including court clerks, mental health professionals and representatives of the Aroostook County district attorney’s office and others in Maine, Safe Voices, American Kennel Club and the Maine Prosecutors’ Association supported the bill’s passage.

The human response to dogs is one of tenderness and affection, but jurors are instructed to use ration and reason when evaluating testimony, Nadeau said.

“Unfortunately, jurors are also human — and the image of a crying child or alleged victim of domestic violence stroking a sweet pup, and the pup responding to that distress by comforting the witness, would affect just about any person’s heart,” she said.

If the state seeks to imprison someone, then they must present credible and reliable witness testimony to the jury — testimony that is not buttressed by a sympathetic courthouse dog. The jury is not supposed to make any decision based on sympathy. Adding a dog to the mix just muddies the waters, Nadeau said.

But the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which advocates for the expanded use of courthouse dogs, says the animals also help defense attorneys, and that juries have not found dogs’ presence beside the witness to be distracting or inappropriate.

Holiday and other recognized courthouse facility dogs must receive 208 hours of training before being officially licensed as a courthouse dog. Collins and Holiday have been training with Purpose Pups in Houlton.

Purpose Pups is owned by Tyler Jones, who is also the head trainer. Jones first came up with the idea for Purpose Pups while working in the NEADS Prison Pup program. In the program, inmates apply to train with a dog for 12 to 18 months. The dogs live with the inmate for that time. He served nine years in federal prison for nonviolent marijuana crimes.

During the public hearing, Nadeau questioned the Aroostook County district attorney office’s priorities, alleging time could be better spent on more important issues like Aroostook County’s substance use problems, the sharp increase in overdoses, the terrible overcrowding at its jail, and its troubling and significant backlog of cases.

“There is a fiscal cost to this proposal, to be sure, and in the context of the overwhelming needs in the criminal legal system in Aroostook County and across Maine alone, this bill should not pass,” she said.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...