Law’s reach on dog bites limited

No case unless animal was known to be dangerous

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Criminal charges

• According to Vancouver city code, the crime of vicious behavior (dogs) is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

• The crime of having dangerous dogs can be elevated to a Class C felony if the defendant has a prior dangerous dogs conviction when the dog attacks a person or an animal. Or it’s a Class C felony if an owner knowingly has a dangerous dog that causes serious injury or death to a person.

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Three years ago, Sheeba, a Shar Pei, was attacked by an unleashed pit bull while on a daily evening walk with her owner, Brian Paulsen.

As she was sniffing a fence on Lewis Drive, south of Vancouver Mall Drive, the pit bull suddenly ran to attack, grabbing the top of the dog’s head and shaking relentlessly. It wasn’t until a man ran up and pried open the pit bull’s jaw with a screwdriver that the dog let go.

Four months later, a severely injured Sheeba had to be euthanized.

The pit bull’s owner, Douglas Mackey, pleaded guilty in Clark County District Court to keeping a dangerous dog. He was sentenced to one day on a work crew and a $423 fine.

His conviction was among only a handful in Clark County in the last decade. While the number of dog bites — some as violent as Sheeba’s — constantly top 200 annually, few dog owners are ever penalized.

Why is that?

Well, it’s difficult to prove “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence permitting an animal to engage in vicious behavior,” the legal standard to charge a dog owner with the misdemeanor crime, prosecutors say.

“The state would have to prove the owner had knowledge the dog was dangerous and failed to take precautions,” said Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty, noting that this almost always entails documentation from animal control officers of previous vicious behavior.

In Mackey’s case, investigators learned that his dog had been deemed unadoptable and was known by Mackey’s acquaintances to be violent. And Mackey was allowing the dog to run loose, according to court documents.

Unaware of danger

Experts say Mackey is the exception to the rule.

Most owners aren’t aware their dog is vicious when the canine suddenly attacks a person or another animal and animal control officers have to intervene, said Paul Scarpelli, manager of Clark County Animal Protection & Control.

“Most of the time, it’s a one-time occasion,” Scarpelli said. “It not like you have all these perpetually vicious dogs. Those are outliers.”

That scenario happened on May 26 when three pit bulls mauled a 9-year-old boy near Harney Elementary School. The unprovoked attack led the Vancouver City Council to consider a pit bull ban. The council dropped the issue late last month in favor of beefing up the city code on dangerous dogs.

Scarpelli said few of the 259 dog bites in the city and county so far this year were major attacks; none of the rest were like the May 26 incident.

“It’s the little boy on Evergreen that you never want to happen,” Scarpelli said.

Scarpelli said the owner in the May 26 incident wasn’t found to be criminally liable, as there wasn’t evidence the owner knew the dogs were vicious or that they weren’t kept fenced or leashed.

Few cases

At the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, McCarty said that since 2000, prosecutors in the misdemeanor unit have received only 11 referrals from law enforcement for the consideration of dangerous dog charges. Most of them were never charged because of insufficient evidence, he said.

Currently, the office has one pending case that hasn’t been charged.

Vancouver City Prosecutor Kevin McClure said he usually charges two or three cases a year, though the last case prosecuted out of his office was in 2009.

McClure couldn’t explain the lull, but agreed with McCarty that such cases are extremely rare because of the high legal standard to prove them.

Aside from previous documentation about a dog’s viciousness, McClure said there is usually little evidence available showing an owner’s liability. He said he has filed charges before when, for example, an owner allows his dog to be unleashed in a leashes-required park and the canine ends up biting someone. Or, he said, he has filed if there’s solid testimony from neighbors and acquaintances that a dog is dangerous.

“When they are filed, they tend to be very emotional, trying cases,” he said.

“They’re traumatic all around.”