Ten years ago, while a student at the Dickinson School of Law, Heather Pratt wrote a law review article on dangerous dogs.
Her interest in the subject was prompted by a notorious case in San Francisco, in which a 33-year-old woman was killed by a pair of Presa Canarios, a Spanish breed that’s very similar to the American pit bull. The owners of the dogs were charged with homicide, and one of them eventually was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
She dug through hundreds of cases of dog attacks and the legal aftermath. She examined court rulings that upheld local ordinances that banned ownership of specific breeds of dogs, most likely pit bulls. She examined the law as it was in effect 10 years ago.
Some things have changed over the past decade. For one, the state passed a law prohibiting local municipalities from adopting local ordinances that ban or restrict specific dog breeds, aimed at cities that had enacted bans on pit bulls.
For another, her across-the-street neighbor in the 400 block of Lincoln Street, Bonnie Cole, a retired York City school teacher, was mauled by three pit bulls on the Fourth of July while she mowed her lawn.
Cole wound up in the hospital for four days with her injuries. The owner of the dogs, Cole’s next-door neighbor, Melanie Robinson, has been cited for owning dangerous dogs, a misdemeanor offense, and other offenses, according to citations filed at District Justice Richard Martin’s office.
So while Pratt concluded in her article that bans of specific dogs are largely ineffective, she has changed her mind. She now favors a ban on pit bulls.
“The question is: Does the right to own these dogs trump the right of people to feel safe?” she asked.
She plans to go ask city council to consider stricter laws governing dangerous dogs, or perhaps initiate a ban on pit bulls, which would certainly invite a legal challenge to the state law banning breed specific legislation. Such a legal challenge, though, is likely to fail. Her research into legal challenges to laws banning pit bulls turned up several appeal court cases in which judges consistently found that such breed bans were not unconstitutional.
“I’m going to ask city council to look at the possibility,” Pratt said. “I think the law needs to be changed. I don’t buy the argument that something bad has to happen first.”
State law on dangerous dogs kicks in after a dog attacks a person or another domestic animal and inflicts serious bodily injury or causes a death. According to the state Department of Agriculture, the law requires owners of dog deemed dangerous to register them, pay an annual fee of $500 and post a bond or carry insurance in the amount of $50,000 to cover injuries inflicted by the dog, among other things. Owner who do not, or cannot, comply with the law must surrender their dogs, which are then euthanized.
Pratt believes the city could do more, perhaps something preventative, to restrict dangerous dogs before they strike. She also believes state law should be changed to increase penalties against owners of dangerous dogs, as a means of deterring ownership of pit bulls and the like. If a human being had attacked Cole and inflicted the serious injuries she suffered, the assailant would likely have been charged with aggravated assault, a felony. Harboring a dangerous dog is a misdemeanor.
“Courts have found that pit bulls, because of their physicality and their breeding, are inherently dangerous,” she said. “An attack by a pit bull, because of their physicality and aggression, causes more serious injury than attacks by other breeds.”
York Mayor Kim Bracey said she is “open to any legislation that could help us.” But she wouldn’t support a ban on pit bulls, or any legislation that would be contrary to state law. She said she has checked with other cities and none have adopted stricter ordinances that state law, which specifies that it overrides any local laws.
“People shouldn’t have to live (in fear),” she said. “We will approach it as best as we can from the law enforcement side, as state law allows.”