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County may add teeth to dog law

August 09, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County officials may incorporate a misdemeanor penalty into the proposed vicious dog ordinance after several people told county commissioners that those who own such dogs need to face at least a fine, if not time in jail.

State Senate Bill No. 3, which gave counties the authority to create nuisance ordinances, also allows counties to impose a misdemeanor for violation of that ordinance, Norwood Bentley III, the county's legal counsel, said Thursday.

Bentley will decide how much time in jail a person convicted of the misdemeanor will face, or the size of a fine. He anticipates finalizing those details in the next few weeks.

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Under state code, a misdemeanor cannot carry more than a year in jail as a penalty.

If approved, the misdemeanor would be enforced like any other. The accused would be arrested and given the chance to post bond. He or she could then either plead guilty or demand a trial.

To determine what the jail term should be, Bentley said he might speak with officials in other areas that have vicious dog laws.

Until several people pleaded with the commissioners during a public hearing a week ago to incorporate some sort of penalty for vicious dog owners, Bentley said he had not considered the misdemeanor possibility.

"It's a good idea, obviously," he said Thursday.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said the county will need to ensure the local law does not run afoul of state code, which currently lists a vicious dog law that is mostly civil, not criminal, in nature.

"In my opinion, they need both a criminal penalty and a quicker civil remedy," she said. "There's a point where human life takes precedence."

Under current code, the owner of a dog that has bitten someone has several appeal opportunities through the court system.

The proposed ordinance declares that, once a dog is declared vicious by animal control officers, its owners have five days to appeal the decision to the county commission. After the commission makes its decision, the dog's owner can appeal it to a Circuit Court judge within 10 days.

The county commissioners have mulled over the vicious dog ordinance for months, and do not anticipate approving it until the Berkeley County Animal Control facility is expanded. The target completion date for that project is three or fourth months away.

The ordinance declares that a dog is vicious if it kills or inflicts injury on a person with or without provocation, injures an animal that is not on its property or approaches a person off its property "in a vicious or terrorizing manner, in an apparent attitude of attack."

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