Issue February 16, 2010

Old dog, new tricks

Revised dog ordinance rekindles familiar concerns

Since embattled Louisville Metro Animal Services Director Gilles “Zheeels” Meloche unceremoniously stepped down — his resignation ringing in the new year — our fixation with this shady ex-city employee has given way to new, more timely fixations, like “Lost” and college basketball.

It’s understandable, then, that the status of Louisville’s dubious dog ordinance, which under Meloche’s tenure had been systematically exploited, has received little attention as of late.

Simply put, the ordinance was drafted in response to a spate of dog attacks/killings in 2005, granting LMAS broad authority to confiscate pets from owners suspected of mistreatment.

Last we left it, the vaguely worded ordinance was awaiting a facelift from the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office as per the opinion of U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson, who in his October 2009 ruling in the case Louisville Kennel Club v. Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government placed permanent injunctions on two key components of the troublesome 2006 ordinance: 1) provisions regarding altered and unaltered animals that essentially divided pet owners by socioeconomic class; and 2) open-ended language regarding the “forfeiture” of pets that gave LMAS animal control officers tremendous, Constitution-breaking means to achieve their ends.

Although the former item as practiced primarily kept poor, non-newsworthy types from having pets due to the exorbitant fees attached to miscellaneous violations, it was the latter item that enabled animal control officers to conduct unconstitutional search and seizure raids of dozens of homes in the Metro area for nearly three years.

Naturally, Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, doesn’t want the new ordinance to allow for a repeat of that era. So when Bill Warner — staff attorney with the County Attorney’s Office — gave Downard a copy of the revised ordinance, the councilman was not satisfied with the changes.

“Sometimes I’m strongly opinionated,” he says. “I kinda caught him off guard.” Councilman Downard says he and Warner had “a difference of opinion” over use of the word “forfeiture,” which designates the animal as property and, therefore, allows animal control officers plenty of leeway regarding their efforts to “rescue” said property (i.e., breaking into homes via windows).

After a long discussion, the councilman directed Warner to further revise the ordinance, and this week, a new version was brought before Metro Council for consideration. This time, Downard — long a critic of Meloche — is pleased with the fact that the term “seizure” is now used instead of “forfeiture,” meaning animal control officers would no longer have virtual free reign in scooping up pets. Whether they will actually abide by the new restrictions — if approved — remains to be seen.

“I prefer the term ‘seizure’ to ‘forfeiture,’” Downward says. “I don’t believe you should have to forfeit property until there has been adjudication by a judge that you’re guilty. I believe that pretty strongly.”

In recent years, upwards of 100 people have been steamrolled by the 2006 ordinance, yet most cannot afford to pursue legal recourse. Aside from one case currently being litigated — O’Neill v. LMAS, Meloche, et al., wherein animal control officers broke into their home to retrieve pit bulls — the vast majority are left to their own devices in the bowels of Circuit Court, where local lawyer and veterinarian Pat King says too many such cases are languishing, most of them involving contested fines due to licensing or shelter violations.

“I was in Room 204 on Friday,” says King, “and there were at least four animal control cases on the docket for that hour. Most of them were ultimately dismissed or getting fined. It’s just troublesome to see that many people in court on any given day. There was nothing heroic going on in there, I can tell you.”

Attorney Jon Fleischaker — who is representing both the Louisville Kennel Club and the O’Neills — says one unsettled issue concerns the enforcement of class-A breeder’s licenses, which essentially prohibits poor people from keeping their dogs in the event one of the dogs gets pregnant, even if the owners have no intention of selling the dogs for commercial purposes.

“They (LMAS) were moving under the issue of the kennel license and seizing dogs,” Fleischaker says, arguing that the ordinance never permitted animal control officers to enforce such licensing in the event that Ms. Lady and Mr. Tramp have a litter (or even if they don’t, but are unaltered, creating the potential for a litter). “Another issue is whether the (animal control officers) and LMPD properly obtained warrants to enter homes and seize animals. We don’t think they did.”

In looking back at how the dog ordinance was crafted in the first place, a name people from the Kennel Club kept repeating was Pamela Rogers.

As legislative research coordinator for the Kentucky chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, Rogers was one of many at the table when the dangerous dog taskforce was formed to sharpen the teeth on the city’s dog law in the wake of 60-year-old Hulon T. Barbour’s death by a crazed pit bull.

During an interview that revealed little-to-no valuable information, Rogers tried to diminish her involvement in the process that gave birth to the onerous ordinance, despite the fact that her name appears in a legal brief in which she tried to use her “expertise” to arbitrate the case between the Kennel Club and Metro Louisville. The motion was denied.

For someone who claims to have had little involvement in the process, there’s a July 5, 2006, letter addressed to Metro Council in which Rogers specifically recommends the adoption of the Humane Society’s “Model Dangerous Dog Legislation,” which grants the director of local animal control services (i.e., Meloche and, by extension, his animal control officers) the authority to determine whether a dog is dangerous or not, thereby supplanting the will of a court with that of a French-Quebec autocrat.

Perhaps even more troubling is that Rogers’ Human Society of the United States is backing House Bill 225, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Crimm, R-33, which would create a statewide cruelty forfeiture law that could result in a spate of mini-Meloche’s popping up across the state.

The main question I asked Rogers — Where do you strike a balance in creating such an ordinance that protects the rights of animals while respecting the rights of people? — remains unanswered.