South Florida teen avoids jail time for burning caged animal

Roberto Hernandez pleads guilty to animal cruelty, sentenced to probation

By Peter Burke - Managing Editor

MIAMI - A South Florida teenager won't serve any jail time after pleading guilty Friday to a felony charge of animal cruelty.

Roberto Hernandez pleaded guilty to the third-degree felony for his role in a 2016 incident at his family's farm.

Prosecutors allege Hernandez, who was 17 at the time, burned a caged cat and then fed the animal to his dogs. Defense attorneys, though, claim it was a rabid raccoon.

"It does appear to be a raccoon," Miami-Dade County Judge Nushin Sayfie said. "Notwithstanding, I don't think a raccoon should be treated in that manner either."

Sayfie said she didn't think jail time was appropriate and instead sentenced Hernandez to five years of probation and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service.

Prosecutors had sought to have Hernandez locked up for at least 364 days.

"I'll point out that the state typically, in cases of somebody of Mr. Hernandez's age -- he was 17 at the time of this offense -- on a third-degree felony rarely requests this type of jail time, even when the victims are, you know, children or police officers or the elderly," Sayfie said. "So I find it curious that, in this case, the state is seeking jail time when human victims don't warrant the same approach."

Roberto Hernandez sits in a Miami-Dade County courtroom after pleading guilty to a third-degree felony charge of animal cruelty, March 8, 2019, in Miami.

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle defended her office's aggressive approach to prosecuting Hernandez, noting its history of pursuing stiffer sentences in other instances of animal abuse.

"While we are disappointed with the sentence imposed on Roberto Hernandez, which excluded our recommendation he serve time in jail, it is our sincere hope that this young man, who brutally caused the torture and death of a defenseless caged cat, will adhere to any suggested psychological or psychiatric treatment imposed by a duly qualified physician," Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. "As I have said many times, research shows that individuals who commit acts of cruelty against helpless and trusting animals don't just stop there. Many of these individuals move on to commit violent acts against their fellow humans."

Sayfie also didn't order a psychological evaluation, noting that Hernandez already had one, but she said she would consider a follow-up evaluation in the future.

The judge noted that there were lots of news reports about rabid raccoons at the time and understood what Hernandez's mindset may have been when he decided to torch the animal, but she also had a message for him.

"It is not OK," she said.

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