On Monday, the Quality of Life Committee of the Dallas City Council held their regularly scheduled meeting. What you probably heard from the mainstream media about that meeting was that there is talk about the City cracking down on unlicensed pets. But that’s not all – there was some other news that came out of that meeting, too – Dallas now has the opportunity to address come animal related violations as civil matters rather than criminal.
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law (House Bill 1509) allowing cities and counties to decide whether or not to bring civil actions to enforce animal care. Prior to the bill’s passage, animal care violations could only be addressed through criminal citations. Which, on the surface, doesn’t really sound like a problem, right? It even sounds kind of good – criminal citations for lack of registration, unaltered pets without permits, tethering, etc. But the reality is that classifying all animal care violations as criminal means Animal Services Officers (ASOs) too often find their hands’ tied when trying to enforce Dallas’ animal related ordinances. Did you know that, as it stands now, ASOs have only two choices when someone violates the law? They can issue criminal citations (which are a lot like speeding tickets), or they can issue notices of violations, which are basically written warnings.
I am not an attorney or a legal expert, but I’ll try to give you some examples to help explain why this is an issue.
1. If you are going 95 mph on Highway 190 and a cop catches you, you get a citation (commonly known as a ticket), right? But what happens if you are going 95 mph on Highway 190 and no cop catches you? The other drivers see you, right? And they could call the cops and tell them you were speeding. But do you get a ticket? No, not unless you are still speeding when the officer catches up with you. Why? Because the officer didn’t witness the crime.
The same applies to pets. If you see a dog with no food, water, or shelter for hours, but by the time the officer gets there, the dog has food, water, and shelter, guess what? The officer cannot write the owner a citation, because he didn’t witness the violation.
2. Say you pass a cop going 85 mph in a 70 mph zone, but the cop doesn’t stop you at the time. Then, a few hours later, he sees your car parked in a parking lot nearby, can he leave you a speeding ticket? No, because citations can’t be issued unless the person being cited is present and provides ID. That’s why cops ask for ID and make you sign speeding tickets – to prove you were present when the violation occurred.
That also applies to animal related citations. If an ASO sees an unaltered dog in a yard, but no one is around and no one answers the door, the ASO can’t leave a citation because there is no one there to sign it. They can only leave a warning.
3. Criminal citations mean a court appearance is required by an ASO for each and every criminal citation issued. That’s a lot of staff time for a department that is minimally staffed to begin with. Civil citations dont’ require that type of time commitment.
Bottom line – classifying all animal care violations as criminal violations not only hampers enforcement, but it means ASOs are making repeated visits to the homes of violators in hopes of getting them to come to the door so they can be cited – a huge waste of time in and of itself, and they’re spending even more time in court instead of on the street.
So what if the City had the ability to treat some animal crimes as civil violations instead of criminal? Wouldn’t ASOs then be able to write tickets even if no one answered the door, or they didn’t personally witness the violation? You bet they would. And the Quality of Life Committee agreed. That change, and several other animal related ordinance changes, were passed on to the full City Council and should be up for a vote within the next few weeks.
Stay tuned….there’s more from Monday’s Quality of Life meeting.