Time for Rogersville, TN to repeal pit bull ordinance

At their board meeting on April 10, 2018, the Mayor and Aldermen of Rogersville, Tennessee passed the first reading of an ordinance updating their current animal control Code, Ordinance 4-10-18-1.  One of the main changes to the ordinance is terminology.  For instance, the only animal referred to throughout the existing ordinance is “dogs.”  The new Code will refer to dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals.  With the exception of a few amendments over the years, the Code had not been updated since 1952, and some of the new issues addressed are animals at large, inoculations, rabies vaccinations, confinement, etc.

The article in the Rogersville Review regarding these changes is misleading in that it states, “among other things, the new code section, prohibits Pit Bulldogs within the corporate limits of Rogersville,” seemingly implying this is new to the Code.  As noted above, sections to the Code have been added throughout the years, and one of those sections was §10-206. “Pit bulldogs.”

Section 10-206 was added to the city code in June 1988, and currently states:

It shall be unlawful for any person to allow any pit bulldog owned by such person, or in the control of such person, to be located in the corporate limits of the Town of Rogersville at any time.  The owner and/or the person having control of any pit bulldog found within the corporate limits of the Town of Rogersville shall be deemed to be in violation of this section and shall be subject to the penalties as provided in this code.

The language of §10-206 has been amended in the version currently before the Board as follows:

It shall be unlawful for any person to allow any pit bulldog owned by such person, or in the control of such person, to be located in the corporate limits of the Town of Rogersville at any time.  A citation may be issued by the animal control officer for any dog the animal control officer initially determines to be 50% or more pit bulldog or which dog may exhibit aggressive tendencies to human being [sic] or domesticated animals.  The initial determination by the animal control officer shall be confirmed by a licensed veterinarian with three (3) days of the issuance of said citation for violation of this section.  The owner and/or the person having control of any pit bulldog found within the corporate limits of the Town of Rogersville shall be deemed to be in violation of this section and shall be subject to the penalties as provided in this code.

In addition, the ordinance defines “Owner” as follows:

Any person having a right of property in a domesticated animal or who keeps or harbors a domesticated animal, or who has it in his/her care, or acts as its custodian, or who permits a domesticated animal to remain on or about his/her premises.

While Tennessee law defines dogs as “property,”  the city’s acknowledgment of the dog owner as a property owner opens the door for discussions on repealing Section 10-206, as breed specific legislation infringes on the property rights of dog owners.

Despite the negative connotation some may associate with labeling dogs as “property,” in the eyes of the law, that’s exactly what they are.  That being said, it is universally understood that the legal description attached to dogs has  no bearing on the affection and appreciation dog owners have for their dogs, nor does it have any impact on or change the fact that dogs are meaningful and beloved members of their families. However, designating dogs as “property” is extremely important to the fight against breed specific laws because “property owners” must be afforded due process. In short, a government’s authority is limited by the Constitution, which is where dogs’ legal classification as “property” comes into play.  According to the Constitution, the government cannot deprive you of your property without giving you due process – that is, notice and a chance to have a hearing. By automatically declaring dogs dangerous because of their perceived breed or appearance, dog owners are deprived of due process, and the city opens itself up to litigation.

In addition, it is simply impossible to determine a dog to be 50% or more pit bull-type dog.  With respect to breed identification and “pit bull bans” specifically, it is important to note that “pit bull” is not a breed of dog but, rather, it is a generic term used to describe a grouping of dogs with similar physical traits or characteristics. There are several breeds that possess the physical characteristics of pit bull type dogs. Most animal control and/or law enforcement officers are not able to identify specific breeds of dogs with any degree of accuracy because those commonly stated physical characterizes are too similar in many breeds.  When you add mixed-breed dogs to the scenario, the difficulty increases exponentially.  In essence, those determining a dog’s breed in Rogersville are simply guessing.

Moreover, when the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) drafted their pit bull ordinance (which is the ordinance most commonly used by Tennessee municipalities), DNA testing to determine breed was not available. Today, DNA testing is available to identify a dog’s breed, and since the burden of breed identification lies on the city, the city must pay for the DNA testing rather than relying on a subjective and arbitrary guess as to the breed of a dog.

In light of this, I would encourage ALL dog owners to attend the next Rogersville Board of Aldermen meeting on May 8, 2018 at 7:00 p.m. to request this issue be added to the agenda.  Residents need to encourage  city officials to repeal the portion of their animal control ordinance that targets “pit bulls.”  As animal control is already an agenda item, and removing the breed specific language would promote community safety and well-being of all who reside there, it seems natural to include this issue in the current discussions.

Residents may also consider providing a copy of the Repealing Breed Specific Legislation Toolkit to their city officials for their consideration. They might also inform their elected officials that breed bans have been proven so ineffective that 21 states prohibit the passage of breed specific legislation.  Finally, residents should review our recommendations for effective communications with officials in order to politely and respectfully convey their request to them.

As noted above, this discriminatory law has been on the books for THIRTY years….its time for positive change, and residents of Rogersville are the only ones who can make that happen.

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