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Due process for dogs

Streamlined county procedures for dealing with dangerous dogs will save money and time.

August 14, 2011

By Los Angeles County ordinance, a dog can be labeled "potentially dangerous" if it threatens or attacks a person without provocation, or if it leaves its owner's property and injures or kills someone else's pet. A dog can be labeled "vicious" if it severely injures or kills a person.

For years, the county's Department of Animal Care and Control took complaints about dangerous dogs that its officers deemed legitimate to Los Angeles County Superior Court for a judge to decide. But late last month, the county Board of Supervisors voted to amend the ordinance to allow the department to settle such complaints through administrative hearings. It's a wise move that will save money and ease a burden on the courts, while preserving the right of animal owners to appeal their cases to a judge.

Under the amended ordinance — which takes effect this month — the department will be required to hold a hearing within 10 working days of an owner's being served with a complaint. Such a prompt action is especially important if the dog has been impounded pending a hearing. No pet should be taken away from its home longer than necessary.

Opponents of the amended ordinance contend that an animal control officer can't impartially decide a case in which a colleague is presenting evidence against a dog and its owner. The county also changed the law to broaden the definition of a "severe injury" by a vicious dog to include any physical harm that results in a serious illness or injury. Opponents suggest this could result in a frisky puppy that knocks someone down being classified as vicious. That seems farfetched.

Officials already go through a careful process to screen complaints, investigating them to determine the facts as well as the reliability of the accuser. In a typical year, only a dozen or so complaints rise to the level of a dangerous-dog case requiring a hearing by a judge.

The city's Department of Animal Services has long employed an internal hearing examiner whose sole job is to decide dangerous-dog cases. Although that's not exactly how the county department's new system will work, it's close. The county department will assign only its most senior animal control officers — lieutenants or captains — to preside over hearings, and they will be expected to rely on medical reports, witnesses' statements and other evidence, not just the word of the officer who investigated the complaint.

If a dog is declared potentially dangerous, there are numerous restrictions that can be placed on the animal. (Being kept in a secure yard, fitted with a bright yellow collar and sent to obedience school are a few.) A dog found to be vicious can be ordered euthanized, but such sentences are rarely handed down by judges. It should remain an exceptional outcome.

Finally, the new system will not cut off access to the courts. Animal owners will retain their right to appeal decisions to Superior Court. Neither human nor canine will be deprived of due process.

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