Owners of Dog the County Declared Dangerous for Attacking Child Appeal to County Court
FlaglerLive | October 6, 2015
A rare and controversial case involving a dog and the 8-year-old child the dog bit in July isn’t over: while the Flagler County Commission declared the dog dangerous at a hearing a month ago, the family that owns the dog appealed the declaration to county court on Monday.
The appeal was accompanied by a motion asking for a case management hearing, raising questions about the procedure that led the matter to fall in the lap of the county commission, then county court. Vincent Lyon, the Palm Coast attorney representing the Sweatts, had raised procedural issues with the county’s handling of the case. He now raises a different set of issues that the law does not address clearly–namely, whether the appeal means that the court will be handling the case from scratch (hearing witnesses and so on as in a fresh trial), or whether the court will review the case as an appeal only, restricting itself to reviewing the procedures of the county commission and its animal control officers.
“County courts across the state do not apply uniform standards,” the motion for case management reads. “There is no statute or ordinance on point, these questions must be answered before proceeding, in order to provide due process.”
The county saw no issues with the way it handled the case. In early July, one of the the Sweatts’s two dogs, Bacchus, a Labrador with a checkered history of behavioral issues, bit 8-year-old Ricky Westfall on the right cheek below the eye socket and left an injury that required many stitches. Westfall was friends with the Sweatts’s son, and had been to the Sweatt house frequently. But the Sweatt testified that he would do so only at their invitation and permission, not uninvited–because the dog had to be restrained when he visited. Westfall entered the house the day he was bitten–uninvited, according to the Sweatts, though Westfall would tell a hearing officer that he was let in.
Initially, the county’s animal control division started the process to declare the dog dangerous. The Sweatts disputed the move, triggering the county’s decision to appoint a hearing officer whose determination would then be conveyed to the county commission, but only as a recommendation. The commission would be responsible for the decision. The hearing officer, after two hearings, recommended that the dog not be declared dangerous. The reason: the dog, according to the officer, was defending its territory. In essence, the dog was standing its ground against an intruder, since Westfall had not been invited to come in.
The county commission, in a 4-1 vote, went against the hearing officer’s recommendation on Sept. 9 and declared the dog dangerous. In late September, the Sweatts were served the dangerous dog classification, which meant two things: Bacchus, the dog, had to be muzzled, restrained and penned in certain areas, as well as tattooed for identification purposes. And the Sweatts had 10 days to appeal. So they filed the appeal.
The case is now before County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens. It also means that county government, with County Attorney Al Hadeed, will have to defend the action, starting with a response to the Sweatts’s motion.