Reacting to a series of dog attacks and problems in recent years in the Counties, both Stevens County and Spokane County in Washington State (and nationwide) have adopted new regulations for dealing with potentially dangerous and vicious dogs. Since I am a citizen of Stevens County, I will speak to the new Title 20 ordinance adopted in December 2007 by Stevens County.
Stevens County’s new set of dangerous dog laws is designed to put the accountability on the owner and not just the animal. At this date, Stevens County does not have any designated animal control authority other than the Stevens County Sheriff. Under its new Title 20 ordinance, the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office now has more authority to find that a dog is dangerous or potentially dangerous and impose corrective actions to protect the public. Owners are given further opportunity to appeal the Stevens County Sheriff’s designation to the courts.
By definition under the newly adopted Title 20, a „potentially dangerous“ dog is one that has a known propensity, tendency, or disposition to cause an unprovoked attack or to cause injury or otherwise threaten the safety of humans or domestic animals. A „dangerous dog“ has caused unprovoked severe injury to a human being, or has killed a domestic animal while off the owner or keeper’s property, or has previously been found „potentially dangerous“ and aggressively attacks again or endangers safety. Both the „potentially dangerous“ dog and „dangerous dog“ designations under the Stevens County, Washington Title 20, carry similar consequences for owners and their dog(s). Stevens County has imposed more restrictive measures under the „potentially dangerous“ dog designation than under current Washington State law.
If a dog is found to be „dangerous“ or „potentially dangerous“, the owner must register the dogs within 14 days of the County Sheriff’s determination, and the registration will only be accepted if the owner agrees to placement of an identifying microchip inserted in the animal, payment of the first registration fee and an annual registration fee, and to keep the dog enclosed indoors or in a proper enclosure. Proper enclosure is defined under Title 20 as a kennel that contains an enclosed top as well as sides. If the dog is allowed outside the enclosure, it must be muzzled and restrained with a 3-foot chain with a 300 lb. tensile strength. An owner cannot sell or transfer ownership, custody or residence of the dog without notifying the County Sheriff and notifying the new owner of the dog’s record with an acknowledgment signed by the new owner of the terms and conditions of his maintenance while in Stevens County, Washington. In extreme cases, presumably the County Sheriff as the animal control officer has the authority to decide if the dog must be destroyed. While I can understand the adoption of Title 20 and its ordinances and the „dangerous dog“ designation and the purpose and merit behind its adoption, the „potentially dangerous dog“ designation appears to be nearly impossible to regulate and this particular designation is ripe for abuse.
I am relatively certain many of us have experienced a difficult neighbor a time or two. For whatever reason, certain individuals seem to have nothing better to do than complain about their neighbors‘ pets, the broken down automobile, hobbies, or anything else that may annoy them at any given time. In fact for some people, they seem to make complaining their hobby. In rural Stevens County, Washington and other rural areas that are moving rapidly toward development, there will always be conflicts between country neighbors with differing views on a rural lifestyle. The Title 20 „potentially dangerous“ dog designation provides these people with just one more avenue for conflict and additional ammunition for harassment. An additional danger for citizens is that the entire hearing process as applied through the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, under both designations, appears to be fundamentally flawed and unconstitutional.
I have spoken to several residents in the County where harassment by a nuisance neighbor, through Title 20, appears to have occurred to their detriment. The new Stevens County, Washington Title 20 „potentially dangerous dog“ designation seems to make it particularly easy for a nuisance neighbor to harass another neighbor. Since the recent adoption of Title 20 in December 2007, I have discovered that several citizens have been struggling to defend against false and/or frivolous allegations about their companion dogs. One citizen found herself the target of a nuisance allegation by a problem neighbor and the Stevens County Sheriff concerning her „potentially dangerous“ dogs, after her complaining neighbor’s dog pulled her show dog through her own fence and killed it. Apparently a complaint was lodged by the nuisance neighbor against the deceased show dog as a preemptive strike. How many Stevens County citizens have simply forfeited their right to ownership of a companion dog because of nuisance allegations they could not afford to defend and unconstitutional actions being taken by Stevens County public officials? All a nuisance neighbor may now have to do is claim that a dog barked at them, and the dog’s owner may be hit with a predetermined „potentially dangerous“ dog designation, fees, an embarrassing public hearing and media coverage, and other severe restrictions on their dog by the Stevens County Sheriff.
I suppose the best part of the new Title 20 ordinance is the appeal process since a dog is already predetermined by the Stevens County Sheriff to either be „dangerous“ or „potentially dangerous“ prior to a hearing. However, many poor people do not have the resources to legally fight back against an initial and possibly frivolous determination by the Stevens County Sheriff in advance of a public hearing. Attorney fees, at a rate of $200 per hour to defend against this type of nuisance action, may be in the range of $2,000 – $40,000+.
There are other potential problems in carrying out the new Stevens County Title 20 ordinances. The problems I reference below, as well as others I have not highlighted in this article, have already emerged in other states and Washington State counties — King and Spokane County, Washington, for example. The courts in King County and Spokane County have recently ruled upon the controversial dangerous dog ordinances and procedures. In King County, for example, in the recent dangerous dog case of Mansour v. King County tried by animal law attorney Adam Karp, where Mansour was found to have been denied due process, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled: „Due process essentially requires the opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner“. . . „An adequate standard of proof is a mandatory safeguard.“ “ The standard of proof instructs the fact finder „concerning the degree of confidence our society thinks he should have in the correctness of the factual conclusions“ . . .. While the Stevens County Sheriff continues to sit as the investigating official, the judge and jury in these potentially dangerous and dangerous dog cases, how much confidence can the public place in any factual conclusion made by the Sheriff’s Office?
In Spokane County in a „potentially dangerous dog“ case, Judge Austin of the Spokane County Superior Court ruled that Spokane’s „dangerous dog“ ordinance is unconstitutional because it denies pet owners the right of due process, and that as a matter of law the administrative procedures used in the City of Spokane regarding „dangerous dog“ determinations and appeals from those rulings violate citizens‘ due process rights. In their current system, dogs tagged as „dangerous“ by the city and its contractor, SpokAnimal, are deemed to be just that unless the owner can prove otherwise — flying in the face of the notion of presumed innocence. The judge ruled that the City violated (in this case) Patty Schoendorf’s rights by taking her property — her dogs –and intended to destroy them after a hearing where she was not allowed to cross-examine or impeach witnesses involved in the dog’s impoundment. She also wasn’t given access to documents in the City’s „dangerous dog“ file, and the opportunity to rebut those allegations — another denial of due process guaranteed by the Constitution. The judge not only ordered Spokanimal to immediately release the dogs, he also ordered the City of Spokane to pay legal bills for a team of attorneys – Robert Caruso, Richard Lee and Cheryl Mitchell, animal law attorneys.
While I would like to say that I trust the Sheriff’s Animal Control Officers to ensure that there is a real danger to the public, the truth (and therein the problem) is that in Stevens County there is currently no separation of powers from the onset of the initial investigation, the Sheriff’s determination of „potentially dangerous dog“, and finally to the Sheriff’s ruling following a public hearing that a dog is „potentially dangerous“. The Stevens County Animal Control Authority (the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office) sits as the investigator, judge and jury. Where is our guaranteed system of checks and balances in this process? The following is generally the procedure used under the Stevens County „potentially dangerous“ dog designation:
(1) When a complainant calls to make a report, he makes it to the Stevens County
Sheriff’s Office, the designated animal control authority in Stevens County;
(2) A Stevens County Sheriff’s Officer may be dispatched to the scene to presumably thoroughly investigate the dog incident and take an incident report. A thorough and complete investigation may or may not occur, and in fact the dog’s owner may not even be allowed to tell their side of the story to the Officer or see the complaint, the results of the investigation, and may not even be advised of the name of the complainant by the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s goal in these cases appears to be to hold back all relevant documents and evidence entirely from the accused pet owner until a day or two before the hearing, stating that the procedure is still in the „investigational stage“– similar to a criminal proceeding. The pet owner has no time to prepare a defense;
(3) After the Sheriff takes an incident report from the complainant, the owner of the alleged offending dog(s) is then promptly advised by a Stevens County Sheriff’s Officer that he/she must submit to photographing of his/her dog(s), prior to the dog owner receiving any kind of a notice or citation from the Stevens County Animal Control Authority (the Sheriff). Notice of the alleged incident may simply be a Sheriff’s Officer arriving on the doorstep or at your gate, and advising you that he is required to take photographs of your dogs as „part of the hearing process“. At this point, you may not even have notice of any hearing. The photographing process may or may not involve a Stevens County Sheriff’s Officer demanding entrance onto your private property or requesting entrance into your home, for the stated purpose of photographing your dog(s).
Citizens, please be aware that a dog is designated as „personal property“ in the State of Washington and other states. The Washington State Constitution and U.S. Constitution protect individuals against unlawful searches and seizures concerning your personal property.
The simple act of entering onto private property for the purpose of taking photographs of personal property, without the direct or implied consent of the property owner and without a search warrant, is unlawful. Generally speaking, warrants are signed by judges or commissioners in criminal matters. At this point, this procedure is still considered a civil or administrative matter. There appears to be something inherently wrong with this process from the outset. (The rule that I have personally imposed is not to let anyone onto my property without my express invitation (or a warrant). My directive to this effect seems to work for most people.)
Of course, there are „exigent circumstances“ exceptions under the law to the warrant requirement. Exigent circumstances generally arise when a law enforcement officer may have reasonable ground to believe that there is an immediate need to protect his life, the life of others, their property, or that of others, the search is not motivated by an intent to arrest and seize evidence, and there is some reasonable basis to associate an emergency with the area or place to be searched. None of these exigent circumstances is likely to exist in a Title 20 dangerous or potentially dangerous dog investigation which would allow a public official to trespass for the purpose of photographing dogs.
4) The owner of the alleged offending dog will then receive a certified letter or personal service by the Stevens County Sheriff‘, notifying the dog’s owner that their dog has already been deemed a „potentially dangerous“ dog or „dangerous dog“ under their new Title 20 ordinance. The owner’s dog is deemed „guilty“ before tried, based generally only upon a report made by a complainant. That complainant could be made by anyone with „axe to grind“. The dog is declared guilty in advance of a public hearing before the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department. The investigating agency (the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office) then amazingly plays the role of the judge and jury at this public hearing where the dog’s owner is required to prove that his/her dog is not dangerous, or potentially dangerous. Please be aware that you (as the accused) are not required to prove anything. The burden of proof falls upon your accusers to make their case, and not you. Public testimony will be taken by the Sheriff, and you will receive a subsequent notice of his final ruling. This entire process usurps constitutional protections afforded each citizen under Washington State and U.S. Constitutions. Any hearing in a „potentially dangerous dog“ or „dangerous dog“ case should be set before an impartial judge or hearing officer. The Sheriff cannot rule on issues as a matter of law.
It is my understanding and belief that any public hearing conducted by a public official(s) in Washington State must follow the law and procedures under either the Washington State Open Meetings Act or Administrative Procedures Act. Since a dangerous dog hearing does not really meet the criteria under the Open Meetings Act, the hearing process should follow the Washington State Administrative Procedures Act. If you are not familiar with this Act, familiarize yourself with it and your rights under this Act. This law can be found in the public library under 34.05 RCW (Revised Code of Washington). Insist that any dangerous dog hearing you may be a party to comply with these lawful procedures.
Citizens, please take heed! The Stevens County Title 20 dangerous dog ordinances are dangerous to you in that they can potentially escalate into a criminal matter if you do not comply with the severe restrictions imposed on your dog, or if the dog is again the subject of a complaint. You must contest the letter/notice that you receive from the Stevens County, Washington Sheriff’s Office and promptly return it via Certified US Mail or Delivery Confirmation. Also enclose your own letter stating you contest your dog’s predetermined designation by the Sheriff, and that you demand a lawful hearing before a bona fide hearing officer conducted under the Washington State Administrative Procedures Act. If you do not sign and return the Notice from the County Sheriff, the „potentially dangerous dog“ designation is automatically applied by the Sheriff to your dog through your inaction.
Once you have been deemed to own a „potentially dangerous“ dog or „dangerous“ dog, all regulations, restrictions, fees and other penalties under the new ordinances apply to you and your dog. The Title 20 regulations, restrictions, fees and other penalties have severe consequences for both you and your dog. If you do not comply with these new regulations following the final determination of your „potentially dangerous dog“ or „dangerous dog“, then you possibly may be issued a criminal citation. Potentially you may be thrust into the position of defending yourself as a criminal. Moreover, your homeowner’s insurance may be cancelled or be prohibitively expensive in the future, and you may be forced to carry an expensive bond if you intend to keep your dog in the County.
The Title 20 dangerous dog ordinances can be dangerous to your health and welfare and your dog’s health and welfare, particularly if you do not exercise your constitutional rights. I would highly recommend hiring an attorney, if you can afford one. Hire someone who specializes in animal law, for instance one of the attorneys mentioned in this article. If you cannot afford one and are low income, call CLEAR at their toll free number in Washington State to see if you can qualify for free legal assistance. Other possible sources of legal assistance are the Gonzaga Law School, or the Washington State Bar Association who may have a referral to a pro bono (free) attorney.
Please exercise your civil and constitutional rights and familiarize yourselves with this new set of laws under Stevens County, Washington – Title 20. Please do not allow your valuable rights to be trampled upon by public officials or you may lose them. Do not allow yourself to become their victim.
Last but not least, please recognize and be aware that you do not have to allow anyone onto your private property, in most cases, without a warrant. It surprises me that many citizens do not know this. If there is any doubt in your mind, please respectfully ask the person requesting permission to enter onto your private property „do you have a warrant?“ Express to them that without a signed warrant, that person does not have your consent to enter onto your private property. This rule generally applies to most everyone, public officials included, unless they have an implied right to enter such as a meter reader. With respect to your private property rights, generally speaking, what applies to any other private citizen who wants entrance to your property applies to public officials as well. Post your gates and property with „No Trespassing“ and „Beware of Dog“ signs to protect yourself — approximately every 50 feet. Also fence your property with at least a 5-6 foot fence if you own a dog, for additional protection. Electrify your fence, if necessary, if you are in a rural area. Fence chargers, including solar fence chargers, can be purchased for $30 and up and are quite effective as a deterrent to entrance and exit by animals.
I recognize that this article may not be „politically correct“ in this climate as this is a sensitive issue right now. I am aware that it may anger those who are truly at risk or who have been victims of genuinely dangerous dogs. I agree that genuinely dangerous dogs are a threat to public safety. However, I submit that while the intent behind Title 20 and other dangerous dog laws is good and I agree with its intent, the process to apply and regulate under these laws has been poorly thought out and implemented in general by Stevens County, Washington and other counties around Washington State (and our nation) in trying to protect the public safety. In trying to protect the public health and safety, individual constitutional rights, due process, and privacy cannot be ignored. If you do not exercise your rights, you will forfeit those valuable rights guaranteed to you by the U.S. and Washington State constitutions. You also may be forced to relinquish your beloved family pet, euthanize it, move out of the County, or live with severe restrictions on the animal and very expensive insurance.