Criminal Case

Like the prosecutors in the Diane Whipple case, the district attorney here found the existing laws to be inadequate. There was and is no state law that specifically addresses canine-inflicted homicides (i.e., deaths of humans, caused by dogs). (For proposed changes to the dog bite law of Texas, see Texas on this web site.)

Texas law addresses a different situation, namely the consequences of having a dog that previously was adjudicated as being “dangerous.” Heath & Safety Code §822.041 provides that a court may declare a dog “dangerous” basically if it causes injury in an unprovoked attack. It is a Class C misdemeanor if the owner violates the provisions of the dangerous dog law or the dog causes serious injury in an unprovoked attack. It is a Class A misdemeanor if the dangerous dog causes a death of a person in an unprovoked attack. A $10,000 penalty may also be imposed on the owner whose dangerous dog causes serious injury or kills someone. Texas Heath & Safety Code §§822.044, 822.045. (See generally Dangerous and Vicious Dogs for discussion of the legal meaning of “dangerous” and the issues pertaining to legal “dangerousness.”)

If a dog has not been previously declared “dangerous,” however, there is a “loophole” in the law, in that there is no law that addresses the situation. Given the savageness of this killing, prosecutors attempted to apply the general law. To make the punishment fit the crime, the grand jury indicted Jose Hernandez for criminally negligent homicide. His trial took place in March 2007.

The conviction of this dog owner depended upon overcoming the bane of dog bite victims, namely the one-bite rule. Under this ancient British legal doctrine, the owner of any domestic animal is not held responsible for the first bite, the first mauling, or the first killing by each and every one of his animals. (See The One Bite Rule.) Texas is in a minority of states that continues to salute the flag of Great Britain when it comes to dog bite laws. (For lists of states that follow or have abrogated the one bite rule, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.)

Hernandez testified that he had no idea his animals were capable of such brutality. He admitted none of his animals had ever been seen by a veterinarian and hadn’t been vaccinated. Several other witnesses for the defense testified that Hernandez’ dogs were not aggressive and were not trained to be aggressive.

The jury found Hernandez not guilty.