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In Latest Victory For Dog Owners, Court Rejects Flagler’s Appeal on ‘Dangerous’ Ruling

| May 17, 2018

A recent photo of Bacchus, the 5-year-old labrador at the center of a wrangle between the county commission and its owners. (Dawn Sweatt)

A recent photo of Bacchus, the 5-year-old labrador at the center of a wrangle between the county commission and its owners. (Dawn Sweatt)

Bacchus, the labrador at the center of a three year old incident in which the dog bit a then-8-year-old boy who had entered the dog’s home unannounced, will not be declared “dangerous,” and the county’s attempts to impose restrictions on the dog and requirements of its owners have been decisively nullified by an appeals court order.

The dog is owned by Dawn and Jay Sweatt, who live in an unincorporated area of southern Flagler County. The Flagler County Commission had declared the dog dangerous at a hearing in September 2015 following the incident that July. The Sweatts appealed, and in 2017 a circuit court judge ruled that the county had “exceeded its authority and violated its own rules” and “failed to observe the essential requirements of law,” violating the Sweatts’ due process rights. The county appealed that ruling.

On May 2, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, in a one-line order, denied the county’s appeal, which means the lower court ruling–by Circuit Judge Scott DuPont–prevails.

“We won,” Dawn Sweatt said in reaction to the ruling. “Fifth District Court of Appeals denied our corrupt county commissioners.” It’s not over, as far as she’s concerned: she’s considering filing suit against the county “for all the undue stress that they put us through since they violated our rights.”

The case may not be over from a different perspective: the DuPont order had called for “further proceedings” consistent with the order, which implied a rehearing by the county. In the interim, the county commission in February approved a settlement agreement with the Sweatts that set aside the dangerous dog determination–and the circuit court order–but also required the Sweatts to build a physical perimeter fence around their entire 5-acre property, behind which the dog would be confined. The county would also have required behavioral training for the dog and an electronic implant to track Bacchus.

The Sweatts never agreed to the settlement. “I have repeatedly told the county attorney I will not fence in my 5 acres and I will not walk my dog on a leash on my own property,” Dawn Sweatt had said after the commission approved the agreement, which could not go into effect until the Sweatts approved it too. “My dog does not go outside unless we are with him. Both of my dogs stay in the backyard with my husband or myself. There have not been any incidences with my dog other than this one child walking in my house on his own.”

After the appeals court decision was issued, Sweatt said county officials had “completely walked all over our rights from the very start of this whole thing,” and that she was seeking to sue over those alleged violations. “The one time the neighbor fired a shot at my dog Bacchus was on my property. he was barking at someone riding his bike. There’s not a dog alive that wouldn’t do that. We used to have neighbors here that had two poodles that look like they were going to try to rip our head off every time we walked by them. But they never went off their property just as my dog didn’t. If my dog would’ve bit somebody off of my property I would’ve put him down myself. But my dog was in my house under my protection when someone decided to let themselves in. Nothing I can do when someone just walked in my house. I am just very thankful that both of my dogs did not attack him. And that it was one bite and release. Not the mauling they try to make it out to be. Not playing down that it was a horrible bite and I would do anything I could to make a child not have to go through that and had he not come to my house uninvited that wouldn’t have happen. But I can’t do anything about it when someone just walks in my house. Be a parent and watch your kids don’t let an eight-year-old roam the neighborhood.”

The Sweatts had originally been represented by attorney Vincent Lyon of Palm Coast’s Chiumento law firm.

“The family won in front of the hearing officer, at the Circuit Court and now at the District Court of Appeal,” Lyon said, retracing the various steps at which the case was heard: before it reached the county commission, a hearing officer had recommended that the dog not be branded dangerous, citing the castle doctrine. “The Circuit Court order that the District Court upheld did not pull any punches, tellng the Board how they went beyond their authority and violated the family’s rights. It’s time for the Board of County Commissioners to accept that and pass the order their hearing officer originally proposed.”

County Attorney Al Hadded had argued in the appeal that DuPont had himself short-changed the county by denying a motion for re-hearing. The county also questioned DuPont’s interpretation of the law. “In overturning the board’s decision, the Circuit Court misconstrued the County Administrative Hearing Ordinance as well as principles related to quasi-judicial proceedings,” Hadeed had written in a memo to the county commission, explaining the appeal. “Because it was the first time a dangerous dog case has been appealed to the judicial system, the Circuit Court’s ruling had the effect of establishing precedent as to how the county will have to handle dangerous dog cases under the county code. To correct the errors, the county appealed the ruling to the Fifth District Court of Appeals.”

The commission does not intend to rehear the case, Hadeed said today. “Rather than redo the hearing for no purpose, as we advised the County Commission, we are drafting a revised, updated ordinance that makes the procedures explicit for future cases,” Hadeed said.

“While there were some procedural ambiguities that it would be nice to clear up, I don’t think that would have affected the outcome,” Lyon said, regarding the possibility of a revised ordinance. (The existing ordinance was written around 2000.) “The Board can’t change Florida law.”

Though Lyon has kept in touch with the Sweatts he is no longer representing them as the firm, in Sweatts’s words, doesn’t wish to sue the county. The Sweatts are exploring that approach through a different attorney.

4 Responses for “In Latest Victory For Dog Owners, Court Rejects Flagler’s Appeal on ‘Dangerous’ Ruling”

  1. Ready says:

    Well I guess that the dog and the Sweatts got a good bite out of the whole ordeal, sue the parents of the 8 year old for causing this knee jerk reaction getting to this point for legal fees, sue the county for violation of civil rights and anything else that can be determined as excessive actions by the county!!

  2. Mary Meyers says:

    Congratulations! Its so horrible how those pesky governments violate our rights every time it suits any of them and waste taxpayer’s money to do so. Very uplifting to see some people have guts to stand up to abuse.

  3. palmcoaster says:

    County wasting our taxes in hard headed legal issues win not good fundamentals. They are to govern not go around suing taxpayers with tax payers funds!

  4. layla says:

    Does anybody posting here have an inkling of what state laws are in this regard? Just curious. In other states, this dog would have been put down. Do I think the dog is vicious? I have not idea. But where dog attacks occur, most states require much more stringent punishment. It is the law that dog bites must be reported and not ignored and that includes attacks on other animals as well as family members. This is to save lives and is not always fair to the dogs or the owners. Seems to me that all efforts here were made to avoid having to do that.

    I have had members of my family bitten by a family dog, our dog, and that usually is a sign that you need to watch this animal, even if he was protecting his home. So be careful with this dog, please. I know how much you love him.

    My neighbor also nearly lost his dog recently when two dogs not on leashes attacked his dog in a public park and then grabbed the animals and left. His dog required major surgery in order to survive.

    Let’s all be careful with our animals, please. None of these rules are pesky. They are there to protect us all.

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