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Monday, 24 June 2013

Dangerous Dogs; or Dangerous Mis-use of the Law?

I have been following, with some astonishment, a case in the US concerning a Sheltie. The dog, a seven year old, is condemned to death for biting the 2 year old grand-daughter of his owner. Jack the Sheltie has no previous record of biting anyone, in fact the little girl involved adores him and still, apparently, wants to know when she can see him. But the City of New Hartford, NYC, Prosecutor and the Judge who heard the case declared him to be a "dangerous dog" at a five minute hearing. No "evidence" was led and the Judge, an 84 year old with no legal background as an attorney, has a somewhat chequered history of not following correct procedure.

In an article in the North Country Gazette, titled "Jack the Sheltie fighting kill order by Judge, 84", makes interesting reading, since, if the report is correct in the details, the city Dog Control Officer who first impounded Jack failed to follow correct procedure as laid down in the State Law on Dangerous Dogs. This seems to have been compounded by the Prosecutor and the Judge, neither of whom have followed the procedures. In fact, from this and other reports I have read, I am left with the overriding impression that the Judge couldn't be bothered with hearing the facts and simply endorsed the Prosecutors request for the dog to be killed.

Since Harry vom Goldbachmoor came to live with us seven months ago I have learned a lot about this breed, and one thing they are not, is 'snappy'. As I have written here before this, they are intelligent, very quick to learn and very, very loyal and loving. We had Harry at a party on Friday night, where there were several strange small children present. One infant in particular was clearly unfamiliar with dogs of any sort, screeching every time Harry approached. His response was sensible, he retreated, found a 'safe' place beneath the table, and watched. Another child, about 3 in age, decided to invite him to play with her. At first he was cautious, then interested, but when she became to boisterous, again retreated. My observation of all the other Shelties we've met since Harry joined our household, display exactly the same characteristics.

Like any dog they will, if provoked, defend themselves, but they do not launch unprovoked attacks on people or children. So why is this city official, the City Prosecutor, and this 84 year old judge so determined to declare this Sheltie, "dangerous"? On the one hand I suspect it may be to cover the fact they have failed to follow the legal procedures, on the other, it may be that it is part of a wider pattern of abuse of authority by city officials. At risk of upsetting many of my US friends, it is one reason many of us non-US citizens have little faith in the US Justice system. Our own is not perfect by any manner of means, but many of the things a US Court will accept in procedures are strictly forbidden in the UK and Europe. Following the laid down procedure of advising a person of their rights and options is one. Jack the Sheltie's owners were not advised of theirs. Add to that the fact the Dog Control Officer involved brought the prosecution when no member of the family involved had asked anyone to do so - let alone him. Clearly both he and the Prosecutor have 'exceeded their authority' in this.

Nor does this appear to be an isolated case. In recent months I have seen a number of appeals for help in combating "kill orders" handed down by city officials for "dangerous dogs", and while some may well have been large and uncontrolled, many had committed no "violent" act against anyone. One was even executed while awaiting an appeal hearing. Nor is it confined to the US, similar laws and proceedings have been adopted by municipalities and officials in some Australian States. In almost all cases there is an element of "exceeding authority" or "abuse" of authority.

As a former 'official' working within a legal framework, this is something we always had to be especially careful of not doing. The UK courts, and the South African ones I first worked with, take an extremely dim view of any official "exceeding his/her authority" on anything. Heaven help an officer who found himself admitting under cross-examination that he/she had not followed the strict procedural rules set out in the legislation or any restriction on his/her powers!

Now a new court hearing has been scheduled for the 28th June, 2013. Jack has been in custody, on Death Row, for more than 80 days. During all this time he has not shown any aggressive tendency, and when his 'family' visit is overjoyed, clearly not understanding why he can't go home. However, the Prosecutor involved is adamant he is "dangerous" and declares that the only thing the new hearing may determine is whether or not the 84 year old local "judge" followed the correct procedure. Anywhere else I would lay money on the new judge overturning the earlier verdict and censuring the earlier judge and the prosecutor, not to mention the Dog Control Officer who started the entire farce. But, this being the US, I'm not that confident.

I invite all my readers to visit this page on FaceBook and show your support for Jack the Sheltie before he becomes just another statistic of the well intentioned, but often badly written, ill-applied and abused laws intended to protect us from the really savage and badly controlled dogs that are "out there". No one with any knowledge of Shelties, or indeed, anyone who, as a responsible owner, has had a dog would class them as "dangerous".

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