Some arrests in the midst of the coronavirus public health emergency are more absurd than others, especially in light of state and local judicial orders to limit all proceedings to essentials. Dottye Benton’s arrest Sunday night at her Palm Coast home is one of those.
For months in the summer and fall of 2018, Cooper the Dog dominated the attention of the Palm Coast City Council as the dog’s advocates attempted to save him from execution. Cooper had been declared a dangerous dog, had twice bitten individuals–in Port Orange and in Palm Coast–and would soon bite a third at the Flagler Humane Society, where the doberman-hound mix was quarantined.
After an administrative hearing at the City of Palm Coast, a circuit court hearing, numerous public pleas before the Palm Coast City Council, which declared its hands tied, and an appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeal, all efforts to keep Cooper from the executioner failed. The dog was put to death in January 2019.
Benton, the dog’s now 73-year-old owner, has been making ends meet by driving for Uber.
Palm Coast government had run up a bill close to $28,000 in legal and quarantine costs, much of which could have been Benton’s liability. The city decided not to pursue the money. “We had let this go, as far as I know,” Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton, who was not yet managing the city at the time, said today. Eva Rodriguez, the city’s animal control officer at the time, who conducted the city’s investigation of the Cooper incidents and testified at the administrative hearing, has since left animal control and works in a different section of Palm Coast government. “We all thought it was water under the bridge,” Morton said.
Weeks ago, following up on a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, Raul Zambrano, the chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler County, ruled that all court proceedings should be limited to “mission critical” matters such as bond hearings, Baker Acts, and legal matters related to the coronavirus emergency. Today, the Chief Justice of Florida extended that order through May.
But last Wednesday, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins signed a warrant for Benton’s arrest on a nearly two-year-old charge of owning a dog that injured a person after the dog had been declared dangerous, a third-degree felony.
At 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, five Flagler County sheriff’s deputies showed up at Benton’s door, read her an arrest warrant, and arrested her. She was taken to the Flagler County jail and booked in. Her mug shot was taken. She was then released on her own recognizance–by the judge’s order, as per the warrant.
Benton had no idea a warrant was out for her arrest. Today, she was as shocked as city officials that the issue was ongoing. “The case was closed and the dog is dead,” she said. She couldn’t talk long because she was driving.
Even more puzzling is the fact that the charge is based on one filed by Palm Coast–by Rodriguez as the animal control officer on the case, and not by either victims of the second or the third bite (Terry Sandt, a carpet cleaner who’d gone to Benton’s house to do some work and was attacked by the dog there, or Shane Blalock, the employee at the Humane Society whom Cooper bit while Benton was visiting. Cooper had gotten away.)
“Because of this being the third reported bite case of the dog named Cooper,” the charging affidavit reads, “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 servere injury on the second bite incident involving Terry Sandt, The Palm Coast Animal Control Office is pursuing the Felony charge of Statue # 767.13 (2) the Attack / Bite of a previously declared dangerous dog that caused severe injury.”
This is the very same charging affidavit that FlaglerLive first reported on in August 2018, when the case was still very active. Nothing has changed since. Benton still lives at the same R-Section house where she was living at the time. The facts of the case haven’t changed, other than Cooper’s death and the city’s decision to move on from the issue.
Then as now, the affidavit states the charge would be forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office, which must decide whether to ratify the charge with an official filing. The State Attorney did not do so in August 2018. It isn’t clear why the affidavit is re-emerging now. The State Attorney’s Office doesn’t discuss what cases it will or will not file informations on, though with neither bite victims pursuing the charge and the city itself not interested in doing so, it would be a surprise if the State Attorney’s Office filed an information. (Morton said it’s not the city’s role to interfere in that decision: “I can’t encourage the state’s attorney to file charges, I can’t encourage the state’s attorney to not file charges,” he said, though prosecutors are not usually interested in pursuing charges where they cannot make a vigorous case.)
Meanwhile, Benton is back in the the system’s crosshairs, 15 months after Cooper became a memory.