Sunday, August 14, 2011

Los Angeles County Lowers the Bar for Declaring Dogs "Vicious"

On Tuesday, July 19, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to change the “Dangerous Dog” law in a manner that could potentially put any dog in Los Angeles County at grave risk. Caring people have voiced serious concerns about these changes, and in response to these concerns, Marcia Mayeda, director of Los Angeles County Department of Care and Control, assures us that none of the feared scenarios will happen.

But let’s look at the actual changes and their implications, and why Ms. Mayeda’s reassurances are unsatisfying at best, and in places, actually false.

Previously, when an animal control officer or law enforcement officer determined probable cause to consider a dog potentially dangerous or vicious, the department was required to petition the Superior Court for a hearing to determine whether the dog was indeed potentially dangerous or vicious. The law has now been changed so that the department itself may conduct that hearing. The new wording states that the administrative hearing to decide whether the dog is dangerous will be conducted by a “neutral hearing officer.” This sounds perfectly reasonable. However, it then goes on to say that “The department may authorize its own officer or employee to conduct the hearing.” So the very people who have already decided the dog is potentially dangerous or vicious, from the very department that so wantonly kills even animals it doesn’t deem vicious, now has the power of life and death over these dogs. How can this be “neutral?”

In addition, these animal control officers have absolutely no training in dog behavior or how to recognize dog body language and signals, or to determine when a dog is really vicious or potentially so. In fact, the definition of what exactly constitutes a “vicious” dog seems to be misunderstood, even among some “professionals” who do temperament testing. See, for instance, this video of a temperament testing session after which the dog was–very wrongly–deemed “aggressive” by a "professional". And this is far from an isolated incident. So how are untrained animal control officers going to be able to distinguish a dog who is actually “vicious” from one who is simply boisterous, playful, or noisy–or afraid?

Second, the law changes the definition of “severe injury” to include “serious illness,” and in another place changes the word “injury to “harm.” So whereas before, a dog would have to have bitten someone, or at the very least knocked someone over and caused bodily injury, under these changes, conceivably, a dog wouldn’t even have to touch someone in order to be declared dangerous. The addition of the phrase “serious illness” leaves the law so open that if an eight pound toy poodle walking on a leash barks at someone, and that person goes home and has a heart attack, the dog can conceivably be considered “vicious” and taken away and killed.

Some people have criticized concerns such as this as an overreaction, but is it? True, it is possible that the above scenario will never happen (and I certainly hope it doesn’t), but the changes leave the law wide open to abuses such as this, and it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility. And even if it never happens, do we want a law on the books that is so open to this kind of interpretation that there is even the possibility of it happening? Mayeda herself has been quoted as saying, “If a dog’s chasing you down the street and you jump on a car to get out of the way, that’s a potentially dangerous dog.” I’ve had people scream and run away when my very friendly twenty-six pound poodle mix goes up to say hello to them, so I can assure you, Ms. Mayeda, the car-jumping scenario doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is actually “potentially dangerous.”

Mayeda replies to the concern that certain breeds will be targeted by saying that “the ordinance is neutral regarding the breed of dog involved” and that “the County has no breed-specific laws on its books.” Again, this is true on the face of it, but because the changes also add that a dog can now be declared dangerous if that dog has been listed as dangerous or potentially dangerous in another jurisdiction, this can amount to breed discrimination in practice. For instance, if someone moves to L.A. County from a jurisdiction where breed specific legislation is in effect, and that person has a dog who was targeted under that law, and that dog has been labeled “vicious” simply because of his or her breed, that dog will now be considered vicious in L.A., even if the dog has never shown any signs of being anything but gentle and loving. So, although it is true that there are no breed-specific laws in L.A. County, in essence, due to this change, BSL will be imported from other jurisdictions.

Mayeda claims that “the threshold [for labeling a dog potentially dangerous] has not been lowered at all.” This is actually not true. Adding “serious illness” to the injuries a dog inflicts to be labeled dangerous, allowing untrained ACOs from inside her own department to determine who is “vicious,” and allowing a label of “dangerous” or "potentially dangerous" to dogs who have been labeled as such in a different jurisdiction, possibly one that labels any dog of a certain breed as dangerous, very much lowers the threshold.

We must keep a watchful eye on this and see how it plays out. I suspect that there will be lawsuits against it and dearly hope that the law won’t stand and will have to be repealed. The administrative hearings for dangerous dogs are open to the public It would be great if people who cared about real justice showed up in numbers to these hearings. First, the cases would be documented and could be publicized in instances where the facts show that the case against the dog is clearly unfair, and second, the department would see that the public is watching and this just might make them think twice before they acted as if they had carte blanche with dogs lives.

1 comment:

  1. I was sad to see this decision come about and agree that we will need to watch very carefully as it is implemented.