Defending Your Dog in “Dog Court”

If your dog barks too much, lunges at pedestrians, snaps at the mailman or kids on the block, trouble is on its way. It can take several forms. The Post Office may refuse to deliver mail until you deal with the problem. Animal control may cite you and fine you. Injuries to others will be followed by a letter from an attorney which, if you do not answer it, will in turn be followed by a visit from a Sheriff bearing the summons for a lawsuit.

A dog biting a person is the most serious of these problems. If your dog bites someone, do the right things so that the victim and his family do not become frustrated and take action. See If Your Dog Bites Someone. For the sake of prevention, see Why Dogs Bite, which explains that training, socializing, and caring properly for your dog will reduce the risk that it will bite someone in the future.

After a bite incident, you and your dog may face charges in criminal court or “dog court.” If the bite was justified because of trespass or provocation, or if there is a risk that the punishment might not fit the “crime,” you will need to retain an attorney or learn how to defend yourself. Your homeowners or renters insurance normally will not cover criminal proceedings or “dog court” hearings; paying a private attorney is normally out of the question because it is usually far too expensive. To get justice, either in the form of a “not guilty” verdict or a proportionate sentence, you need to prepare thoroughly. To do so, see Defending Your Dog – Win Your Case In Dog Court, which is a complete manual that covers both the law and the strategies for cases in criminal court and “dog court.”

To most dog owners, the most important question in a criminal or administrative dog bite case is whether your dog will be taken from you and/or put down. Every jurisdiction has its own laws concerning the consequences which may result from a dog bite. In addition to the civil laws which provide compensation for the victim (and sometimes punitive damages), there are criminal laws and administrative laws. “Dog court” usually proceeds under the administrative laws. There are three broad issues that arise in criminal and “dog court” hearings:

  • The first issue is which laws will be applied. The states often have regulations and even statutes that deal with dangerous dogs. Additionally, the county and the city usually have their own ordinances. So, one must obtain all three sets of laws and review them.
  • The second issue is which laws the particular animal control department or court will choose to follow. This often is a matter of policy. Some authorities are more concerned with protecting people from animals, while others focus on protecting animals from people. There are departments that never want to euthanize a dog no matter how vicious it is. So, one must find out what the policies of the pertinent authority are.
  • The last issue is the matter of proof and tactics — specifically, whether it is possible for the “prosecutor” (whoever that might be) to produce sufficient evidence to meet the requirements of the applicable law relevant to putting the dog down. The art of the trial lawyer (whether the prosecuting attorney or the defense attorney) is to present the evidence in the manner necessary to win one’s case. For the defendant, this means proving an affirmative defense (i.e., “the victim provoked my dog”), a denial (i.e., “it didn’t happen at all”), or a violation of one’s own due process rights (i.e., “the citation was incorrectly filled in”). So, one must carefully analyze the elements of the law and then marshal the proof required to satisfy each element or, if on the defense side, to defeat each one.

The hearing usually proceeds methodically, whether it takes place in a criminal court or “dog court.” Essentially, the “prosecutor” (who might be an animal control officer, a city attorney, or another official) has to present evidence that a particular dog fits the definition of “dangerous” or “vicious” pursuant to the law of the state, county, or city. The prosecutor can pick whichever body of law (state, county, or city) he feels should apply. The hearing officer (a different animal control officer, a police officer who does duty as a hearing officer, or a judge) has to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to rule that the dog fits that description. The degree of evidence varies with the jurisdiction and the charges; in criminal cases, it is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” but in other types of hearings a lesser standard of proof is required. There are many defense tactics that focus on defeating the prosecutor’s task. One may challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, oppose it as hearsay or something equally objectionable, or contradict it with other evidence.

If your dog fits the description of a “dangerous” or “vicious” dog, the hearing officer must order a “sentence” or “disposition” pursuant to the same body of law. The dispositions vary widely and can include a fine, an order that the dog be confined a certain way, a requirement that the dog be insured, euthanasia of the dog, or a number of other things. The person defending the dog should be prepared to convince the hearing officer to impose an acceptable disposition. An example might be that the dog owner merely pays a small fine, or that the dog be muzzled but only when it is on public property.

It is essential to prepare for this hearing by studying the law and carefully reviewing all of the evidence. One also should bring favorable witnesses to the hearing, such as the dog’s veterinarian, trainer, or other people who can testify that this is a good dog. Obviously, if there were witnesses to a particular incident, one would bring them if they were favorable. To learn more about defenses and defense tactics, see Defending Your Dog – Win Your Case In Dog Court.