New ordinance to regulate aggressive dogs

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The Warwick City Council just gave more teeth to local laws regarding incidents of aggressive dogs, as they voted to accept changes to Section 1, Chapter 4 of the Code of Ordinances during their meeting on Monday night.

The ordinance creates a “middle ground” that allows authorities, either Warwick Animal Control officers or police officers, to differentiate between what was a particularly vicious attack by a dog (which would warrant a vicious hearing) and what was a less serious but still threatening act of aggression, and legislates penalties for first, second and third offenses.

“This gives the court a lesser crime to pursue and charge with instead of charging for the whole vicious law, which could result in a dog being put down,” said Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla in an interview when the ordinance was first proposed last month. The ordinance was originally tabled to satisfy some language disputes, and was approved for a first passage on Monday.

The ordinance defines an aggressive dog violation as one where it can be affirmed in writing – either by two separate residents of the neighborhood in which the dog lives or by local authorities – that a “dog is being aggressive without provocation by its actions such as biting or attacking a human or any animal or in an aggressive or terrorizing manner approaches a person or animal in an apparent display of attack…”

If such an event occurs and is attested to, “the Animal Control Officer or the police shall have the authority to issue violations and/or impound said dog and/or service notice upon the owner or custodian that such vicious action must be abated.”

The ordinance further states it will be unlawful to place an aggressive dog into the custody or control of somebody who is physically incapable of handling said dog. Violating these provisions will warrant a fine not exceeding $250 for a first offense, $350 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense, along with a mandatory court appearance.

Fines may only be levied after an investigation is conducted by either the Warwick police or Animal Control, and a dog owner will not be held responsible if their dog bites somebody who is trespassing on their property, or committing any other crime or similar violation.

The new ordinance also nixes language that said a person could not be fined under both this law and the vicious dog law. If the ordinance gets through its second passage – it was supported unanimously in its first passage – perpetrators may be charged with violating either the aggressive dog ordinance, the vicious dog ordinance, or both.

Merolla said being able to fine someone for both an aggressive and vicious dog violation was akin to being able to charge somebody with both impaired driving and failure to submit to a chemical breathalyzer test.

Ann Corvin, director of the Warwick Animal Shelter, said the ordinance was important as it addressed what was previously a gray area where, even if a dog only nipped somebody, it would have to be handled afterwards as though it were a “vicious” attack. In such cases the dog owner would have to attend a vicious dog hearing and could possibly be required to adhere to costly stipulations in order to keep their dog.

“What we don’t want is every bite going to a vicious hearing and having stipulations put in place and the dog being labeled as a vicious dog for a bite that doesn’t warrant such an action,” Corvin said.

“The problem is there are gray areas where it might be the dog just nipped someone, and if you make them go to a vicious dog hearing it's like putting a person in jail for a misdemeanor,” said Merolla. “It would give them discretion to charge it depending on the facts and the circumstances.”

Corvin said that the aggressive dog ordinance will hopefully serve as a wakeup call to irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs roam free of leashes, which can lead to situations where those dogs endanger people and other pets.

Merolla said that the ordinance does not preclude somebody from filing additional civil charges against a perpetrator through their own legal counsel if they choose to do so.

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