More than two years ago, a dog called Bacchus, owned by Jay and Dawn Sweatt, bit Ricky Westfall, who was 8 at the time, when Ricky was visiting the Sweatts’ son at their home. The case has turned into a complicated legal battle since, last culminating on Monday when it reached an appeals court.
The Flagler County Commission filed the petition with the Fifth District Court of Appeal, contending that a circuit judge had improperly ruled against it.
In the appeal, the specifics of the case may be less consequential than the matters of law and local government authority or “principles” that the appeal raises, and the broadsides the appeal makes against a circuit judge’s interpretation of law.
Put simply, the appeal, drafted by County Attorney Al Hadeed, pits Flagler County government against Circuit Judge Scott DuPont, questioning his understanding of quasi-judicial proceedings at the local level.
The petition raises another potential issue: that the judge did not grant a county motion for a re-hearing on the issue. The county had asked for a re-hearing in April to clarify what it considered an ambiguous section of law addressing the circuit court’s jurisdiction over the case. Notice of a a 15-minute hearing for Aug.31 was posted on the docket on June 26, only for DuPont to issue an order on Aug. 2 denying the motion for a re-hearing, and saying there was no ambiguity in the cited law.
“The County was not able to argue or discuss the ramifications of the direction the Circuit Court decided to pursue since it held no hearing on the County’s timely motion for rehearing, nor did it conduct oral arguments on the ‘appeal,'” the petition to the Fifth District Court of Appeal states.
Though it’s in every judge’s purview to deny a hearing, the reference to the hearing not granted may not be merely just a statement of fact, but seems to allude to a context that has nothing to do with this case, and everything to do with DuPont’s methods as a judge. DuPont is currently battling serious charges against him filed by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission. Some of the charges target his behavior as a candidate for judge. Others target his behavior in the courtroom, where his handling of certain hearings has been questioned, among other issues. The county’s petition, in other words, buttresses its appeal with the usual legal arguments but also by hinting at a matter of fairness–or due process–of its own.
The incident took place in July 2015. It was first investigated by Flagler County Animal Services, which informed the Swatts that it would declare their dog dangerous. That would require the dog to be confined in various ways. The Sweatts appealed the decision to a hearing officer, who reached his own recommendation after two hearings: though he found the dog’s behavior fit the legal definition of dangerous, he also found that Ricky had gone to the Sweatts’ house uninvited, in essence entering the Sweatt home unlawfully, and therefore exempting the dog from being called dangerous.
But it was up to the Flagler County Commission to accept or reject the recommendation. It rejected it, and voted 4-1, after a hearing of its own, to declare the dog dangerous.
The case then went to County Court, before Judge Melissa Moore-Stens, then to Circuit Court, before Scott DuPont, who in early August issued a ruling reversing the County Commission’s decision. DuPont agreed with the Sweatts and their attorney, Vincent Lyon, who’d argued the Sweatts’ due process had been violated when the County Commission, in the judge’s view, re-heard the case by letting the attorney representing Westfall and his mother, Dennis Bayer, argue before the commission. The board also allowed the public to comment before taking a vote.
DuPont ruled that Bayer should not have been allowed to argue before the commission: The “only parties entitled to argue before the Board were the Sweatts and the County,” he wrote, yet “the County Attorney made absolutely no argument either opposing or supporting” the administrative hearing officer’s recommendation. DuPont also found that the commission erred when it picked and chose what to ratify from the administrative order and what to reject, arguing that the recommendation had to be either accepted in full or rejected in full (though that recommendation itself acknowledged that its argument was forked).
The judge did not end the case exactly. He “quashed” the commission’s vote and remanded the issue back to the County Commission, where it would have to be reheard according to the rules DuPont said were not followed in September 2015.
The county is now seeking to counter that order.
Four elements of the ruling are “contrary to the quasi-judicial principles applicable to dangerous dog cases at the local level,” the petition argues on a preliminary page that lays out the county’s argument succinctly: “First, for a dog classification review, the local government should not be a party to the proceedings but rather the quasi-judicial decision maker. It should be neutral when a dog owner seeks review of the decision of the animal control agency. Second, the legal counsel to the local government (its county or city attorney) should not be an advocate of either position in the hearing conducted by the local government. Third, the local government should have the authority to determine that the individual injured may appear by counsel because the individual has suffered injury in fact. Lastly, after considering the findings and conclusions of law of a hearing officer, the local government should be able to determine if there was competent substantial evidence to support the hearing officer’s findings and whether an error of law was committed.”
By deciding the questions in the negative, the Circuit Court ruling “disturbs the quasijudicial matrix when local governments are acting in such capacities,” the petition argues.
Bacchus, incidentally, was 2 and half years old when he was declared dangerous: while there is a chance that the case stretches beyond the natural, average life of a Labrador, it is still relatively early in that dog’s life.
Flagler County’s Petition, Fifth District Court of Appeal
Flagler County can’t admit when they are wrong. This is not a shocker. With the clowns acting as administrators this is expected. Judge DuPont made the appropriate ruling and did a fine job with this case. When this appeal is over the dog owners need to take action against Flagler County for all the expense, and stress they endured over Flagler County Officials demonstrating arrogance and ineptness.
DuPont should be removed
To the person who was bitten, the dog is dangerous; to the rest it is not. The dog is an extension of the owner.
Marty Barrett says
Yet another example of the intransigence and utter lack of intellect by this dangerous and unstable judge. It’s time for him to go.
This entire story is such BS.
Keep in mind that Ricky “entered the home without the knowledge of either Jay or Dawn and was told by Jay Sweatt not to come over until called, and did not have authority or license to enter the home, therefore his presence was unlawful. Since [Ricky] was not legally on the property, the county cannot declare Bacchus a dangerous animal, since the dog may have been protecting the family from intruders.”
If this wasn’t a child but a actual person trying to do harm, would the dog still be dangerous?
Komodo Dragon says
The Labrador is not responsible for not knowing who the child is. To him, the child entering a home uninvited is an intruder and the dog did exactly what would be expected. The Sweats nor the Labrador have no responsibility for the incident and their lives should not be torn apart for the child’s mistake.
The child also didn’t realize he was putting himself in danger. It’s the innocence and ignorance of a child’s presumption that entering a friends home uninvited, unaware of the danger that could have had a tragic ended. That being said, the owner of the Labrador needs to make sure that all doors and points of entry are always secured to avoid such an outcome.
The Labrador is not a danger to the general public however, like all canines, they protect their domain as would be expected.
Another asinine act by Flagler County. How arrogant can one be to challenge a Judge on something as this? The county has no place in the matter and needs to put their time and energy into drainage issues throughout the county. Come on County Commissioners get your heads out of the sand and start thinking for yourselves and stop letting Coffey lead you around by the nose—this makes you look like incompetent over the hill men!
Oh the arrogance of the Flagler County commission, administrator, and county attorney to try and become the justice system and then challenge a sitting judge when he rules they don’t really dont have authority In the matter.
Flagler County again making up the rules as they go. It is shameful how they waste so much of our hard earned money and spew so often how they are fiscally responsible. Flagler County Commussionets never had any business in this matter and it’s disturbing that those newly elected to the board are not speaking up to correct errors of the past administration. A couple of commissioners were voted off the board in 2016, in 2018 its time for McLaughlin to go. All he’s interested in is cutting ribbons throughout the county.