If a dog is declared vicious, does a town have the right to seize the animal and potentially euthanize it solely because the pet owner lives within one mile of a school or daycare facility? The ACLU of RI has entered its appearance in a court case in order to challenge the enforcement of a North Kingstown ordinance that orders just that, and that has placed a local family in the position of losing their pets despite complying with all relevant state laws. The case also raises fundamental due process concerns since the town had already agreed in a legal proceeding that the animals could be kept if the owners took steps, which they did, to better confine the pets.
North Kingstown resident Kristy Miserendino, her boyfriend and her mother own three pitbulls. A hearing panel, convened pursuant to state law, declared two of the dogs vicious after nipping or biting a passerby outside their home. The hearing panel, which included a representative from the town’s police department, ruled that they could keep the two dogs if they complied with a series of requirements. The requirements included obtaining insurance, posting a warning sign on their property, requiring the dogs to be in an enclosed area when outside on the property, and further requiring they be on a leash and muzzled when off the property. The owners decided not to appeal the finding, and quickly complied with all of the requirements in order to ensure the dogs would not pose a threat to anyone in the community.
However, over a month after the state hearing, the owners received a letter from the police department advising them for the first time of a local ordinance that bars any vicious dog from being housed within a mile of a school or day-care facility. Because town officials concluded that the Miserendino house is less than a mile away from a school, they ordered the dogs, Balou and Ozzy, removed from the house. The pets were seized by town officers last month and are being kept at the town shelter pending a municipal court hearing on December 3rd. If the ordinance is upheld, the dogs face euthanization.
An appeal filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Mark B. Morse will argue that the town’s residency restriction conflicts with the state hearing panel decision and with state law that establishes detailed procedures and penalties regarding “vicious” dogs. At the court hearing, Morse will further argue that the owners’ due process rights were violated when the Town seized the dogs under that ordinance after the owners had complied with the state decision.
Attorney Morse said today: “I am very concerned about the application of North Kingstown’s ordinance as it applies to Ms. Miserendino’s family since they did everything they were supposed to do to keep their pets, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath them following their compliance. I am also concerned about the validity of the ordinance in general. Rhode Island’s Vicious Dog Statute provides for certain restrictions if a dog is found vicious. The hearing officers then have a right to impose all or some of these restrictions as they think is necessary to protect the public. For the Town to seek further restrictions, beyond that required by the Vicious Dog Statute, interferes with the authority of the State to properly manage these type of issues.”
Kristy Miserendino added: “This whole situation has not only taken a great toll on our family emotionally, but our dogs as well after being taken from their family and home not once but twice within a three month period. After complying with all state laws, our dogs were returned to us after being held at the pound for almost thirty days. More than a month later, we were given ten days to move out of our home or kill our dogs. On October 15th, my children witnessed the town coming to my home at 7:30 am with a search warrant to seize our dogs, and to this day they remain at the shelter. It would break our hearts if we were forced to euthanize our dogs over this unfortunate incident.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown remarked: “Basic notions of due process do not allow for the type of bait and switch tactics that occurred here. The Miserendinos complied in good faith with the hearing panel’s decision. For North Kingstown to participate in that decision and then upend it is, we believe, unfair, unseemly and illegal.”
Defenders of Animals has also expressed concern about the town ordinance. Director Dennis Tabella said today: “The Vicious Dog Panel process allowed the town of North Kingstown ample opportunity to provide documentation on issues regarding dogs declared vicious. The town seems to be bent on not only destroying these dogs but also devastating a family that values their companion animals.”