Cincinnati dog owners beware: If your dog injures a person or another animal you might go to jail under rules being proposed by Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach.
And, it’s important to note, unlike past city laws aimed at irresponsible owners, this one isn’t breed-specific.
The proposed changes to Cincinnati’s vicious dog rules wouldimpose up to six months’ jail time for the owner of a dog that seriously injures a person or other animal; it would also eliminate a provision in the current law that says penalties don’t kick in until a second attack.
Seelbach, who will formally introduce the proposed law during council’s summer meetings next week, said the changes are aimed at holding owners accountable.
“For decades the city of Cincinnati has given a free pass to owners of dangerous and vicious dogs who attack children, adults and other pets in our community,” Seelbach told The Enquirer. “The vast majority of these attacks are due to negligent and irresponsible owners. It’s time to eliminate the free pass.”
Cincinnati Prosecutor Charlie Rubenstein puts it this way: “We are not trying to put labels on any one breed. But if your dog is loose and causes harm, you could go to jail the very first time.”
Cincinnati City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, chairman of council’s Law and Safety Committee, is working on separate legislation with an eye on “making sure that it doesn’t create unintended consequences.”
What it won’t be: a ban on pit bulls. And, for now, Smitherman is not looking at criminal consequences, either.
It’s not ready to roll out, but Smitherman is focusing on pit bull registration and a fine for people who don’t follow the law.
“Responsible people will have to step up and say they are willing to register so the city can separate the responsible owners from the irresponsible owners,” Smitherman said.
A June 6 pit bull attack on 6-year-old Zainabou Drame while she was playing outside at her Westwood home prompted a community conversation and scrutiny about how the city handles dog attacks.
Two pit bulls tore at Zainabou’s face, severing her tongue. The attack ended in police officers’ killing the animals.
The community outcry for justice has been loud. Because the dogs hadn’t previously bitten anyone, though, owner Zontae Irby was charged with only a minor misdemeanor for the attack – failing to confine or keep his dog on a leash. The punishment: a $150 fine. Irby faces drug charges that carry up to 8 1/2 years in prison.
SPCA officials say it’s been a terrible summer. A 7-month-old Dayton boy was killed in a dog attack, and an 8-year-old Batavia girl suffered a bite so severe she needed 218 stitches.
Seelbach said that, while Zainabou’s attack thrust the issue into the spotlight, the new vicious dog rules were two years in the making. They stem from council’s decision to repeal an ineffective law that banned pit bulls. The problem: The rules kept responsible owners out but didn’t prevent attacks from people who flouted the rules.
The city’s current law is so lax, city prosecutors have resorted to charging people in animal attacks with the state criminal violations, which clearly say dogs can’t run loose. The new rules mirror state law.
Under Cincinnati’s current law, if a dog bites a person or other animal in a public place, the negligent owner is not punished for the attack. They could be charged only with failure to confine the animal. It is only after the second bite that the owner can be held accountable for the attack.
• If a dog injures a person or another animal the owner could be charged with a third-degree misdemeanor. A third-degree misdemeanor has a maximum punishment of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, though a judge has the option of imposing probation.
• If the dog causes “serious injury” the owner could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor. A first-degree misdemeanor has a maximum punishment of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, though a judge has the option of imposing probation.
Seelbach worked with the SPCA in crafting the rules.
Rubenstein’s office doesn’t make recommendations. But in recent weeks at the request of council members, city lawyers studied various ideas.
They looked at bringing back the pit bull ban but found the idea had no support.
They also researched creating a registration that requires insurance. It’s possible and was done in the past, though fewer than 10 people signed up. Seelbach’s proposal does not include the idea.
“These new changes send a clear message: If your dog attacks and causes injury to a person or other animal, you can go to jail, perhaps for as long as six months,” Seelbach said.
Cincinnati SPCA member Jim Tomaszewski said it’s impossible to “legislate your way out of the problem.” That said, though, he supports the changes in order to give prosecutors the tools they need to work.
“Increasing the penalties is a key component of these laws,” Tomaszewski said. “Presumably they have a deterrent effect, although that doesn’t always pan out.” ■
Cincinnati dog law history
1999: Council lifts pit bull ban; instead requires pit bulls be registered, insured, tattooed and embedded with a microchip.
2003: Only 11 people ever registered their pit bulls. Council reinstates ban.
2012: Council found the ban was keeping people from living in the city and, in an 8-1 vote, lifts the ban.