Dry Run for the Doggie Death Penalty? The First “Dangerous Dog” Hearing is Underway Before Macon-Bibb’s Board of Health, With a Verdict Expected Monday Evening, March 9, 2015. Even After the Verdict, There’ll Be Lots of Questions Left to Answer.
By Dave Oedel, March 8, 2015, Macon, Georgia:
On December 29, 2014, three dogs, Coco, Pearl and Justice, pit bull mixes, got out of a contained backyard in the Brookefield subdivision off Bowman Road in north Macon at 140 Brookefield Drive, apparently from a hole in the high board fence that is typical in the neighborhood. Walking in the neighborhood was a visitor to the subdivision from Miami, Florida. His name? Renalto, an eight-year-old Schnauzer. At the end of a brief, frenzied encounter among the four dogs, Renalto was dead.
Renalto’s owner, Claudio Naranjo, 38, visiting her friends Zarina and Tora Gore who live at 304 Millwood Court just around the corner and about five doors away, was injured with bite punctures to her hand while trying to separate the dogs. Some of the punctures on one hand received stitches.
None of the four dogs was on a leash or effectively contained. The fight occurred at least initially outside the fenced yard of Coco, Pearl and Justice, in the area of the street or yard in front of or adjacent to the dogs’ home, according to Zarina Gore’s statement to me at her own home today, which she based on what Naranjo told her. Zarina Gore also said to me that Naranjo saw the dogs emerge from a hole in the fence when she was walking by, and retreat there after their fight with Renalto.
An animal control officer from Macon-Bibb County, Sonja Adams, designated the three surviving dogs all to be “dangerous,” though without asking for the dogs to be euthanized. “They are people-friendly but animal-aggressive,” Adams said.
Adams said that she had previously noted an unenforced ordinance on the books of Macon-Bibb, dating back to the Macon City Council, that gave officers like her the authority to designate any dog as “dangerous” if it “causes a substantial puncture of a person’s skin by teeth without causing serious injury,” or, “[w]hile off the owner’s property, kills a pet animal.” Such a declaration imposes special containment obligations on the dog’s owner, and may provide a presumption against the owner in any future cases involving the dog. Adams said she “took it upon myself” to revive and enforce the ordinance.
Adams could have requested that the Brinson dogs be put down according to the ordinance, but she did not. Adams said that she has designated five other dogs as dangerous, but no one has disputed such a designation until the Brinsons requested a hearing on the designation of their dogs as dangerous. I spoke with Adams after her testimony before the Board of Health, all of which I did not hear.
The hearing has been pursued with vigor and at considerable length by the Brinsons, resulting in the continuation of the hearing over three different days. Veronica Brinson is herself a lawyer. A brand new set of procedural rules was issued in the process by the hearing officer, Julia Magda, who also serves as legal counsel to the Board of Health. Magda issued two extensive, carefully analyzed sets of evidentiary orders, one from January and another from February, 2015. Magda’s legal rulings during sworn testimony at the March 3 hearing sounded to me, a lawyer and law professor, to have been well-reasoned and impartial. Magda impressed me as a good potential judge candidate someday.
The owner of Coco, Pearl and Justice is Ryan Brinson, whose mother, Veronica Brinson, owns the house at 140 Brookefield Drive, near the place where the reported melee among the dogs began. Both Brinsons were later arrested for recklessness in allowing the dogs to escape from containment. Each Brinson was released on $650 bond. No civil suit has been filed, although a civil suit involving another dog bite incident a year before had previously been filed. The Brinsons contest whether the dog alleged to have been involved in the incident the year before is the same as any of the dogs involved in the incident on December 29, 2014.
The Brinsons appealed animal control officer Adams’ determination of dangerous dog status for Coco, Pearl and Justice to the Board of Health, which conducted a first hearing for more than four hours in February, at which time only Sonja Adams, the animal rescue official, testified. A subsequent hearing before the Board of Health on March 3, 2015, also went for hours. The final hearing is expected to take place beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, March 9, 2015 at the Macon-Bibb Board of Health on Emery Highway.
The frenzied melee among the dogs led to another frenzied encounter later, after the owner Naranjo called her husband, Jose Munoz, for help. Munoz arrived in a car, drove up on the lawn between the Brinson home and the next-door neighbors’ home, and apparently attacked at least one of the dogs with a knife. The Brinsons were not home at the time. Munoz also was injured in the process. Munoz was not arrested at the time.
Neither Naranjo nor Munoz came from Florida to offer testimony at either of the first two days of the dangerous dog hearing, though they were aware of the proceedings, Gore told me. Gore explained their absence before the Board of Health as being attributable to them being “afraid.”
Five members of the Board of Health, serving patiently like a jury, attended the first two hearings. Those members serving to hear the matter are Bert Bivins, Ethel Cullinan, David Gowan, Elaine Lucas and Chris Tsavatewa. Stacy Carr and Paul Mossman were absent. The five members who heard the earlier portions of the extended hearing are expected to rule on whether to uphold the dangerous dog designation after the final witness is heard on Monday evening, March 9, 2015.
Lingering questions that arise from this extended hearing include whether the owners’ respective containment issues should be relevant to the determination of whether the Brinson dogs themselves, or any dogs subject to the ordinance, are dangerous. The ordinance conceptualizes dogs as being natively dangerous, or not, largely independent of ownership, containment, leashing and discipline issues.
Another question that is left after this process is what kind of procedure is due at this level. Health Administrator Nancy White, who served on Macon City Council at the time the dangerous dog ordinance was adopted, said that she envisioned a more summary procedure at this stage when she participated in passing the ordinance. White said that the Board of Health may recommend changes to the procedure after this proceeding concludes.
A further question raised by Veronica Brinson is whether a determination of the animal control officer should be entitled to deference, and the owner put in the posture of bearing the burden to prove that the dog is not dangerous.
Yet another issue arising from this case in particular is whether dogs operating as a pack should be subject to the same categorization without particular evidence indicating that all members of the pack actually bit a person causing substantial wounds, or killed a pet not on the dogs’ property, even if it is found that one or more dogs may have done so.
The animal control officer’s official testimony in this case that I heard was that all three were “involved” in the death of the Schnauzer Renalto, not that all three killed the dog or bit its owner. Should all three Brinson dogs who allegedly conducted an attack together each be deemed “dangerous,” sort of like the felony murder rule for people, or should there be evidence that each dog participated actively and causally in the specific injury or death?
A further issue is what constitutes a dog’s home “property” for these purposes. Given that dogs may not appreciate that the street outside the home or the next door neighbor’s yard are not legally their home property, should such dogs be given deference in their own interpretation of what their home property may appear to them to be if they are not otherwise restrained?
Another interpretive question is whether to discount the bite received by Renalto’s owner because she presumably inserted her hands into the fray to protect Renalto. Does the ordinance’s designation of substantial bites to a person as warranting dangerous-dog designation apply in such a circumstance?
And yet another issue: what should the Board of Health do about the absence of the alleged victim of the biting, and the owner of the deceased dog, who did not appear to provide sworn testimony about the incident? Is hearsay evidence, combined with an officer’s field determination, sufficient to find a dog or dogs to be dangerous – and how much of such evidence is necessary, and what sort of field determination is entitled to deference?
On March 7, 2015, the Animal Rescue facility for Macon-Bibb on 11th Street hosted a day to let 27 dogs remaining there be available for adoption before the facility is shut. All 27 have supposedly been “pardoned” from euthanasia that would apparently otherwise be their summary fate.
When I visited there on that day, one dog I witnessed seemed more animal-aggressive than any one of the Brinson dogs as described. However, that dog at the animal control facility had not been designated as dangerous by the same officer, Adams, who designated the Brinson dogs as dangerous. That calls into some question the even-handedness of the designation of particular dogs as dangerous, and, conversely, why some animal-aggressive dogs should be “pardoned” and sustained at taxpayer expense indefinitely. There is also some question about whether any dangerous animal-aggressive dog should be put out for adoption by Macon-Bibb.
Two spectators at the second day of the hearing involving the Brinson dogs had their own, different questions about even-handedness in the identification of the three Brinson dogs as dangerous. “It’s a witch hunt,” said an individual who identified himself as Brother Leo. Leo explained that he views Veronica Brinson’s dogs as having been singled out for Brinson’s personal unpopularity and notoriety by authorities.
Another spectator, Sarah Hunt, separately stated that the officials seeking the dangerous dog designation “become attack dogs themselves.” Hunt said that the dangerous dog designation has been pushed to “to attack her,” referring to Veronica Brinson.
Also unclear in the wake of this hearing is whether any conclusion the Board of Health may reach may have legal bearing on the criminal charge of recklessness that the Brinsons continue to face from Macon-Bibb’s solicitor, Rebecca Grist, or any civil suit that the Brinsons may face regarding these dogs, another dog, or dog containment issues in general.
Check back in the Macon Monitor for further details later.