Dottye Benton, the 72-year-old owner of a dog twice declared dangerous and condemned to die, faces a felony charge following the dog’s third bite of a person on Aug. 16, the second since Benton has owned the dog.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office filed the charge on behalf of Palm Coast Code Enforcement Wednesday and forwarded it to the State Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to ratify it or dismiss it.
A third-degree felony charge carries, on conviction, a maximum penalty of five years in prison, though first-time offenders are almost never penalized that harshly. If the charge isn’t reduced to a misdemeanor–as it often is–the offender may face some probation, and adjudication is usually withheld. But contending with the charge can be aggravating, expensive and uncertain, particularly in a case that’s aroused sizeable public passions. In such cases, the State Attorney typically is loath to play down the case. Benton is already battling a civil case in the matter.
The severity of the charge in this case draws on what the charging affidavit traces as a pattern of negligence and cover-ups on Benton’s part.
Cooper is the 6-year-old dog at the center of what has become a disproportionately high-profile controversy that’s prompted demonstrations and social media campaigns. The last such demonstration was attempted at the Palm Coast Community Center on Election Day; it drew a few advocates before it was rained out, though Benton said another one is planned. The case has embroiled Palm Coast government, led to a lawsuit in circuit court and now appears to be a political cause at least one candidate for Palm Coast council–Jack Howell–is latching onto (he was at the last demonstration). The felony charge is likely to inflame the issue further.
Cooper bit a Flagler Humane Society staffer as the dog was quarantined in the society’s custody since Feb. 27. That may itself complicate the legal issue as it raises the question at least partly of the society’s responsibility. But at the moment of the bite, Benton was visiting her dog, was clearly tending to it (the society has video surveillance) and had somehow allowed it to escape its kennel and rush the staffer, who was bitten on the hip. Unlike Cooper’s two previous bites, the staffer was not hospitalized.
Benton, according to the staffer, attempted to hush the incident, telling the staffer not to say anything. A Palm Coast’s animal control officer happened to have been at the Humane Society at the time (Eva Rodriguez, the same officer who prosecuted the second-bite case and determined that the dog should be killed). Benton did not inform her of the bite, Rodriguez reported. Benton could not be reached today.
“First, who has legal custody?” asked John Brady, an advocate for Benton’s position and a former candidate for Palm Coast mayor. “As I understand, the city must have legal custody and clearly the shelter has physical custody. If that is the case why can this woman be charged? Suppose I was at the shelter with the intent of adopting a dog and was in a visiting room and some individual walked into the room and the dog bit that person, would I be responsible because I had temporary physical custody?”
The charging affidavit cites a pattern of negligence and dissimulation on the owner’s part.
Cooper’s first bite took place when it was in Benton’s daughter’s custody in Port Orange last January. Port Orange declared the dog dangerous–at a hearing Dottye Benton attended. She took custody soon after that. On Feb. 24, the dog attacked a carpet cleaner who’d gone to Benton’s house to do some work, injuring him severely. Palm Coast declared the dog dangerous, had it quarantined and condemned it to death. A hearing officer upheld the decision. Palm Coast government has stood steadfast by the decisions. The council considers the issue to be out of its hands.
Benton on May 18 sued to quash Palm Coast’s kill order. She does not dispute the declaration. But she wants the dog exiled to a shelter for dangerous dogs on Florida’s west coast, and has galvanized a small movement on hers and the dog’s behalf to press for that resolution.
On Aug. 22, six days after Cooper’s third bite–there’s no evidence suggesting the judge knew about the third bite or would act any differently if he did–Judge Terence Perkins gave Palm Coast 10 days to show cause as to why Benton’s petition to quash the kill order should not be granted. Palm Coast has not yet responded (the city is seeking an extension).
Under Florida law, if a dog previously declared dangerous attacks someone (or attacks a domestic animal) without provocation but without serious injury, the owner of the dog is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. If the dog attacks “and causes severe injury to or death of any human,” the law states, “the owner is guilty of a felony in the third degree.”
According to the sheriff’s charging affidavit, the Bentons’ avoidance of legally required responses regarding the dog began after it was first declared dangerous, when it was to have been surrendered to Port Orange authorities for a 10-day quarantine. “Dawn did not do this,” the affidavit states, referring to Benton’s daughter, “and instead relocated the dog to her mother’s home (Dottye Benton) at 29 Ryder Drive in Palm Coast.”
In a second instance of dissimulation, neither Benton notified Palm Coast authorities of the dangerous dog’s presence. Port Orange authorities had to do so.
The third instance took place at the R-Section house when the carpet cleaner showed up and Benton did not tell him her dog was dangerous “and instead let the dog out of his enclose so that [the carpet-cleaner] may pat him,” the affidavit states. “This was clear negligence on Dottye’s part, knowing the dog was dangerous to strangers.”
The affidavit states Benton was at the shelter “unsupervised with Cooper for a visit” on Aug. 16 when “Cooper came out of the kennel and attacked” the staffer.
The affidavit concluded: “Because of this being the third reported bite case of the dog named Cooper and because Dottye Benton did not take responsibility to follow the order from the Port Orange Animal Control Office and did not keep Cooper in a muzzle and on a chain or leash and under her control to avoid further incidents and also made no attempt to report the third bite, and because the dog caused [severe] injury on the second bite incident involving Terry Sandt, The Palm Coast Animal Control Office is pursuing the Felony charge” under Florida law.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s charging affidavit refers to Cooper as “a Doberman / Hound mixed male dog.”
“The third bite would not have occurred if the city took the offer of releasing the dog to the person who agreed to take the dog and assume responsibility,” Brady said, noting that the city attorney could have worked out a solution weeks ago.
Elizabeth Robinson, who leads Community Cats of Palm Coast and helped Benton with the first awareness campaign on behalf of Cooper, said in an email: “I think for Cooper’s supporters, there is a principle at stake, which is that you don’t put an animal to death when there is a humane alternative at hand. Letting Cooper go to the rescue ranch to live out his life would remove him from this community and from living in a home setting. Rescue ranches are accustomed to handling dogs with aggression histories.”