Family wins court case against Village of Swanton, Ohio!

A Fulton County Eastern District Court judge today dismissed a case against Swanton resident, Tim Bork, who was charged with failing to register a “vicious” dog after an official identified the dog as belonging to a breed regulated by the Village code.

The case, which was filed with the court in July, centered around a dog named Bailey owned by the Bork family and wrongly identified as a “pit bull-type” dog by the acting county dog warden.   After several months of back and forth, the Village’s legal counsel finally filed a motion to dismiss, admitting there was not enough evidence to prove that Bailey fit within the parameters set by Swanton’s ordinance that determines how dogs are deemed vicious.

Despite the state’s move away from breed-specific language in 2012, the Village of Swanton maintains an ordinance labeling as vicious “any breed of dog that is commonly known as a ‘pit bull dog.'”

In this regard, Acting Fulton County Dog Warden Brian Banister visited the Bork home last June, and after a visual inspection, he told Mr. Bork that Bailey was “likely a Brazilian mastiff mix, also known as a Fila Brasileiro.  Banister further advised Mr. Bork that he considered Bailey to be a ‘pit bull-type” breed because of her large head and brindle color and, therefore, the city’s breed specific ordinance applied to Bailey.

Swanton’s ordinance states:

Vicious dog has the same meaning as set forth in ORC 955.11 and shall include in addition any breed of dog that is commonly known as a ‘pit bull dog.’ This includes any Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, or American Staffordshire Terrier breed of dog or mixed breed of dog which contains, as an element of its breeding, the breed of Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Perro De Canario, aka the Canary Dog.

Fila Brasileiro, the breed of dog Banister identified Bailey to be, is not one of the breeds specifically named in Swanton’s ordinance.

Nevertheless, the Bork family was given 30 days to complete a canine good citizen class that would allow them to obtain liability insurance, which must be shown when the dog is registered with the police department.  Despite knowing Bailey was not a breed of dog specifically regulated by the Village, the Borks still undertook initial steps to comply with the law out of the fear of losing their dog.

At the same time, the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates challenged the Village’s dog ordinance, saying it is vague and puts an undue burden on its dog-owning residents.

According to Acting Dog Warden Banister, this was the second time the Village  asked for his opinion on a dog’s breed.  According to Banister, only the police department has the authority to enforce the law, and he is utilized for his opinion about breed.

Banister further advised that in this particular case, it was his opinion that Bailey “absolutely is” a pit bull type dog.

A DNA test (commissioned by The Toledo Blade) revealed that Bailey is a mix of American bulldog, Rottweiler, American Staffordshire terrier, black and tan coonhound, Coton de Tulear, bull terrier, Neapolitan mastiff, and miniature pinscher.  She is less than 50 percent “pit bull,” which was the standard that previous court cases have used in determining whether a dog is a “pit bull”-type.  Ohio’s dangerous and vicious dog law, which was revised after the passage of House Bill 14, went into effect in May 2012, and it defines a vicious dog as one that, without provocation has killed or caused serious injury to any person.

Appearance or breed is no longer mentioned in any section of Ohio state law, which now focuses on behavior.

Even though the Swanton city administrator requested the Village attorney review the language of the ordinance, which was last revised in 2010, he defended the Village’s position, saying they had the right to enforce their own ordinances.

At the time of our original post back in June 2013, Village officials indicated they were reviewing the existing ordinance to determine whether it needed to be updated but, to date, they have not changed or amended the ordinance in any way.

As such, the Fulton County Dog Warden continues to treat “pit bulls” and “pit bull” mixes as inherently vicious and will not adopt out the dogs to the general public or allow rescue groups to take them.  Stray “pit bulls” that are not claimed by their owners are euthanized.  Dogs in Swanton continue to be judged based on their appearance or perceived breed, said identification being based on the opinion of whomever happens to be making the determination at the time.

What’s happening in Swanton illustrates very clearly how arbitrary and subjective breed specific laws are.  Under a breed discriminatory ordinance, breed is ALWAYS in the eye of the beholder.  If a different dog warden were utilized in the Bork case, and that warden determined that Bailey was simply a “mixed breed” dog, this entire situation would never have occurred, and that is simply unfair, unjust and unacceptable and should be truly offensive to ALL dog owners.

The Borks have been sending me periodic updates on their situation, and I’m thrilled for their victory, and relieved to know that Bailey is safe, and her family will not be forced to adhere to a discriminatory law that imposes undue hardship on responsible dog owners.

That being said, it’s troubling that Swanton is still enforcing a breed specific ordinance, and dogs having a certain appearance continue to be targeted.  I am hopeful, however, that with the help of the recent ruling by the Third District Court of Appeals in City of Lima v. Stepleton, in which the Court declared the city’s breed specific provisions unconstitutional because they conflict with state law, that Swanton residents will continue their efforts to repeal the Village’s breed specific law and bring the city in compliance with state law.

Responsible dog owners should not have to live in fear of losing their family companions due to discriminatory  laws that rely solely upon the subjective judgment of those chosen to enforce it, and I send my heartfelt appreciation, as well as congratulations, to the Bork family for taking a stand on this very important issue.   As they look into Bailey’s eyes tonight, they will know they made a difference – not only for their family, but for other responsible dog owners in Swanton, as well.

Swanton

Bailey and her family on their victory walk this afternoon!

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