In June 2015, Padi, a black Lab mix, bit a four-year-old child. Despite the circumstances surrounding the incident, Manatee County Animal Services said they were required by state law to euthanize Padi, no exceptions. Manatee County citizens questioned whether or not Manatee County officials were correctly interpreting the law on how aggressive animals were handled. State Representative Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed legislation in August to change the state law, which currently says any dog causing severe injury to a person, which includes injuries resulting in stitches, reconstructive surgery or death has to be euthanized; no exceptions. Steube’s bill, which has been filed for the 2016 session, allows for exceptions. We asked Florida attorney Dionne Blaessing to interpret the wording of the proposed bill, as compared to the originally-written Dangerous Dog statute.
The revision of sections Fl. St.767.12, 767.135 and 767.136 essentially represents a reorganization of the concepts and a rewording of the language of the original Dangerous Dog Statute that has been in effect for decades. The new version clarifies the role of Animal Control, spells out the different options under the law and elucidates the availability of constitutional protections imbedded in the process of hearings and appeals. There are some actual changes to the law which will be expounded upon here.
Fl. St. 767.12 grants county Animal Control services the authority to investigate reports and/or incidents involving any dog that may be deemed dangerous. This section now clarifies that Animal Control has sole discretion in determining whether they, or the dog owner, will confine the dog during the investigation; during a hearing if requested by the owner; and through the appeal process if elected by the losing party. It now makes clear that during a hearing and an appeal, the dog cannot be destroyed, but must be impounded at the owner’s expense.
Fl. St. 767.12 improves the explanation of possible defenses available for the dog. It expands requirements of the formal notice to owner, to include not only the final determination of the investigation, but also the penalty sought by Animal Control. It defines the timetable for owners requesting an initial hearing and requesting an appeal of the outcome of the hearing. The appeal is no longer to be heard in county court but must be filed and heard in circuit court.
Fl. St. 767.12 (5) outlines the responsibilities of the owner who elects to keep a dog deemed dangerous, once the hearing and appeal process has ended. This section remains the same in concept but is better organized and easier to understand.
Fl. St. 767.12 (6) has been added to clarify that if a dog determined to be dangerous in the investigation, hearing and appeal, caused severe injury to a human being, Animal Control may impose a penalty of humane euthanization. That proposed penalty must be clearly stated in the notice to the owner. Both the classification as dangerous dog and the penalty prescribed may be reviewed in the hearing, which will review all the evidence of the investigation and any defense. That may include revisiting testimony of all witnesses, affidavits and medical records used in determining the dangerous dog classification and the opted penalty.
Fl. St. 767.12 (7) exempts from this section, hunting dogs, show dogs and herding dogs when they are involved in legal activities, such as shows, trials, hunts, herding, et al, while engaged in the activity. However, a hunting dog previously classified as dangerous cannot hunt. Any dog exempted under (7), when not engaged in their sport or activity, are subject to Fl. St. 767.12 and all local laws.
Fl. St. 767.12 (8) explains the fine for violation of the provisions of Fl. St. 767.12.
Fl. St. 135 and 136 do a good job of rewording the former confusing statutory language. The new Fl. St. 767.135 addresses an attack or bite by a dog that has not been previously declared dangerous. Now, if the dog causes the death of a human, the dog will be immediately confiscated by Animal Control and held for a period outlined in the section to allow the owner to request a hearing and an appeal. The owner must act within the times prescribed by the section. And the owner will be liable for all costs of the confinement of the dog during the process.
Fl. St. 767.136 imposes a criminal penalty on an owner who is aware of the dangerous propensity of a dog, when the dog causes severe injury or death of a person, unless the dog attacks a person engaged in a criminal activity.
Fl. St. 767.16 fully exempts police dogs from this section. The section exempts a service dog used by a blind, deaf or disabled person, which bites a human or another dog, from a quarantine period if the dog’s rabies vaccine is veterinarian administered and current. Quarantine is not the same as confinement for the infliction of severe injury or death of a human.
Note to readers: The following is a rule of statutory construction: Whenever you are reading a statute which includes a word or phrase that may have many interpretations, do not assume that your interpretation is correct. Instead, each act or chapter of law has a Definition section with the definition of words used in the section. See Fl. St. 767.11 (partially displayed below) for the definition of the term “dangerous dog” and the phrase “severe injury” et al.
Definition of a dangerous dog as defined in the current Florida Dangerous Dog statute: (1) “Dangerous dog” means any dog that according to the records of the appropriate authority: (a) Has aggressively bitten, attacked, or endangered or has inflicted severe injury on a human being on public or private property; (b) Has more than once severely injured or killed a domestic animal while off the owner’s property; or (c) Has, when unprovoked, chased or approached a person upon the streets, sidewalks, or any public grounds in a menacing fashion or apparent attitude of attack, provided that such actions are attested to in a sworn statement by one or more persons and dutifully investigated by the appropriate authority. (2) “Unprovoked” means that the victim who has been conducting himself or herself peacefully and lawfully has been bitten or chased in a menacing fashion or attacked by a dog. (3) “Severe injury” means any physical injury that results in broken bones, multiple bites, or disfiguring lacerations requiring sutures or reconstructive surgery.
If your dog is involved in an incident, please see a well-versed animal law attorney to understand your rights and responsibilities with regard to the administrative Animal Control process. That process will be separate and apart from civil liability for the victim’s injuries and your attorney should explain both issues to you.
Dionne Blaessing is a regular contributor to THE NEW BARKER dog magazine’s Paw Law column. She obtained her Juris Doctor with Honors from the University of Florida in 1994. Prior to becoming an attorney, Dionne’s 20 year background in veterinary science included serving as an emergency technician at the SPCA Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston; Chief of Nursing for Boston Zoological Society; managing a local veterinary hospital in Pasco County. She has also served on the board of the Suncoast SPCA in New Port Richey for 10 years, including as the board president. Her practice is in New Port Richey, and she may be reached by calling 727.992.9114.