Sunday, May 27, 2012

Laws created to suit dog advocacy sometimes fall short

The Toledo Blade recently updated the public on the adventures of Mr. Hugh Smith, of Toledo. In October of 2009, the Lucas County Dog Warden seized what the Dog Warden classified as three pit bulls from Mr. Smith after one of them attacked another dog while Smith had them out for a walk. Smith was charged with 13 violations of Toledo law. Toledo had, at that time, a law that limited households to just one pit bull and required a leash and muzzle when off the owner's property. Mr. Smith responded that his dogs were not pit bulls, but rather cane corsos, and also argued that Toledo's vicious dog laws "were unconstitutional anyway." The case was heard in the Toledo Municipal Court by Judge Michael Goulding.

Judge Goulding threw out 10 of the charges, and went on to state that the Toledo muzzle rule, and the limit of one pit bull per household rule were unconstitutional as they conflict with home-rule doctrine. This is difficult to understand because Ohio Home Rule, as pertains to dogs, gives communities the right to regulate dangerous dogs. The Judge also stated "While the state statute does not specifically permit ownership of more than one dog 'commonly known as a pit bull,' it does not specifically prohibit it either." It is true that State statute did not prohibit owning more than one pit bull dog but Home Rule allowed Toledo to pass and enforce this law. This was Toledo's right per the Home Rule Doctrine.

The Judge went onto state that a provision of Toledo law that included pit bull mixed breed dogs in the same category as pit bulls was also unconstitutional. At that time, Ohio law did include pit bull mixes as dogs commonly known as pit bull dogs, this law was found constitutional in 2008.

Mr. Smith was represented by Daniel and Kristi Haude of Cleveland. Kristi Haude and Toledo resident Jean Keating are co-founders of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates. At the time of Judge Goulding's ruling, Ms. Keating was quoted in the Toledo Blade "What we formed this group to do is to help people like Hugh. Otherwise those dogs would be dead."

The dogs were eventually released to Mr. Smith. This case resulted in the repeal of Toledo's Breed Specific Law. The city revised the laws to remove any breed specific references and will focus on demonstrated behavior (a victim will already have been created) . The law went from proactive to reactive.

Fast forward to January of 2012. The Lucas County Dog Warden's office again seized four of Mr. Smith's dogs. This time Mr. Smith was charged with failing to immunize his dogs against rabies, and failing to confine or restrain the dogs on his premises to prevent escape. The dogs were found around the corner from the Smith home. Additional charges were filed later, two counts of failing to register a dog or kennel, four counts of permitting his dogs to run at large and two counts of failure of the duties and responsibilities of a dog owner by permitting any dog to trespass upon the property of another.

This case will return Smith to Judge Goulding's court, Smith will again be represented by Daniel Haude and will plead not guilty. This time Judge Goulding ordered the dogs to be held by the Lucas County Dog Warden until trial. Mr. Smith has stated that his due-process rights were violated.

Mr. Haude has stated "At the time of seizure, the dog warden did not have the seizure order or any paperwork to show the defendant indicating that any type of seizure order had been issued or the basis of the seizure order." "No hearing was scheduled prior to the seizure of his dogs, nor was the defendant given notice or opportunity to present evidence prior to the seizure of his dogs." Mr. Haude goes on to state that the court lacks the authority to order the seizure of the dogs, even if Smith is convicted of the charges against him.

Mr. Haude has filed a motion asking for return of the dogs, which Smith states are two cane corsos and two mastiff mixes.

Local law was changed as a result of Mr. Smith's 2010 case. Was it worth it? In a "Twilight Zone" moment, Smith will return to the same courtroom, with the same judge, and the same lawyer. Will the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, who "formed this group to help people like Hugh" reconsider their support? Will Judge Goulding consider the safety of Mr. Smith's neighbors THIS time? As this case clearly shows, owners of problematic, or violent dogs feel that it is their right to keep their dogs in their possession until all legal options have been exhausted. The Due process written into HB 14 is so convoluted and complicated that dangerous dogs will probably be returned to the community with no safeguards to protect the public.