W. VA Supreme Court upholds pit bull ban

The Supreme Court of West Virginia has upheld the finding of the Wayne County Circuit Court that the pit bull ban in the town of Ceredo, WV  is constitutional.

As we all know, the Constitution guarantees citizens many things, but it doesn’t guarantee the right to own a dog.  It does, however, guarantee certain rights to property owners, and dogs, in most states, are considered  “property.”  Unfortunately, many cities have found it easy to “get around” due process and property rights of dog owners by asserting that their breed specific ordinance is rationally related to the legitimate interest of insuring the health, protection and welfare of the citizens.

In the case at hand, the Ceredo city court found the three defendants guilty of owning pit bulls within the city limits, a violation of the city code.  In 2009, the defendants appealed the city court’s ruling to the Wayne County Circuit Court, arguing that the ordinance in question was “unconstitutional in that it is arbitrary and unreasonable.”

The Circuit Court found in relevant part:

That each Defendant’s dogs are of the breed that is typically referred to generically as pit bull dogs which are aggressive by nature, have been known as attack animals with strong massive heads and jaws, and have been found to represent a public health hazard;

The majority of jurisdictions have accepted the proposition that dogs of this type have a propensity to be aggressive and attack without provocation and it is well established that such dogs have gotten a lot of notoriety of being dangerous to public health and safety;

The ownership, maintenance and control of dogs or other animals within city limits is a local concern which does not exceed the limitations of the home rule doctrine;

 That section 505.16 of the Codified Ordinances of the Town of Ceredo is legitimate, specific, rationally related to that legitimate interest and exercises the constitutional powers of the municipality to impose safety regulations to insure the health, protection and welfare of the citizens;

That the ordinance is not constitutionally vague nor does it violate the due process of the Defendants because the owners may by limited by and subject to the City’s legitimate exercise of police powers by living inside the city limits; and

That the conviction of each Defendant was based upon the evidence that these were pit bull dogs, they were within the city limits, and they were owned, harbored or maintained by each of the defendants within the jurisdiction and based upon the same the Court finds that there was no violation of due process.

In their brief to the State Supreme Court, the petitioners (defendants in the lower court) alleged that the Circuit Court erred in denying their appeal because the ordinance in question is unconstitutional in that it is arbitrary and unreasonable.  Petitioners also asserted that “the ordinance assumes a dog to be vicious based merely upon its breed without any further evidence of viciousness.”

The City of Ceredo argued that it has a legitimate interest in protecting its residents against the dangers of pit bulls, and that the ordinance in question is constitutional because it is rationally related to that legitimate interest.

There were no oral arguments before the Supreme  Court, and the ruling was made on the briefs of the parties.  The WV Supreme Court found the Circuit Court’s ruling to be well-reasoned, and that no errors of law were made in coming to its conclusion.

As I read the findings of the Courts, I am astonished that any logical, reasonable person could find these laws anything but arbitrary, vague and unreasonable.  Its unfathomable that with all the statistical data, expert testimony and facts available, that any court could agree with blanket assertions and stereotypes, and not recognize that dog owners are first and foremost the essential piece of the puzzle that determines whether an individual dog poses a threat to the community, much less apply those assertions to an entire grouping of dogs and rule them all as a threat to the public because of their appearance.

I then look to Maryland where legislators who do understand the key role irresponsible owners play, as well as the implications that breed specific laws and blanket stereotypes have on responsible dog owners, and how they are working to reverse the arbitrary and unreasonable ruling of the Court of Appeals finding that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous.”  Moreover, an examination of the evidence presented in the Solesky case refutes all the findings of the Circuit Court in West Virginia.  Of course, that evidence could not be presented to the W. Va Supreme Court for consideration.

Its disappointing that ignorance, hype and misguided city officials would rather target animals (who are  – or should be – under the direct and immediate care and control of their individual owners), than actually work toward creating safer communities through enforcement of leash laws and breed-neutral dangerous dog law, in addition to public education on responsible dog ownership and preventing dog attacks.  If their true concern were public safety, they’ve missed the mark by a long shot.

The Supreme Court’s Memorandum Decision can be found here.

The one thing I want you to take away from this is how very important it is for owners and advocates of “pit bull type” dogs to continue advocating for the breed, educating the public, and getting our breed ambassadors out there to show what “pit bulls” really are… DOGS, nothing more, nothing less.  And just like any other dog, each is an individual,  each is a reflection of his or her owner, and each deserves to be judged on his or her own merits – not swept into a group or stereotype by uneducated decision makers.

As we continue to change negative public perception about “pit bulls”, the argument that pit bull bans are “rational” or “reasonable” to preserve public safety will fall flat on its face.


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