HAGERSTOWN — Maryland’s highest court in April ruled that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous” and instinctively aggressive, prompting Hagerstown police to pursue an ordinance that affixes strict liability for bites on owners of the dogs and their landlords.
In the case of an attack, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled, it was not necessary to prove that the dog had a history of violence, and owners or landlords would be held liable for damages because they knew the dog was a pit bull or mixed-breed pit bull.
That ruling — in a Baltimore County civil case in which a pit bull got loose and bit someone and the landlord of a property was found liable — now has Hagerstown officials examining the issue as a matter of public safety.
Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith will discuss a proposed pit bull ordinance with the Hagerstown City Council Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall at 1 E. Franklin St.
According to Maryland’s common-law approach for dogs, first-time offenders cannot be held liable criminally for bites, but the city’s ordinance would strip that stipulation for owners of pit bull-type dogs, Smith said.
Although any dog can bite, “(pit bull-type dogs are) more dangerous when they do bite,” Smith said, adding that it’s “pretty evident” around Washington County.
“It’s not saying they’re all dangerous, just more likely,” he said.
The proposed ordinance would institute certain safety measures for owners of pit bull-type dogs within city limits, as well as govern how the dogs are confined at home, and require a leash and muzzle when in public.
Although seizure of the dog after an attack likely would not be required, Smith said, it would allow criminal charges to be placed against the dog owner or the person in control of the dog.
Each year, about 16 people die and 386,000 require treatment in an emergency room due to being bitten by dogs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said nearly half of people who are bitten each year are children, specifically those between the ages of 5 and 9.
In a CDC study that examined dog-related deaths from 1979 to 1998, 76 of 284 deaths were attributed to pit bull-type dogs. Rottweilers accounted for 44 deaths, while German shepherds and husky-type dogs killed 27 and 21 people, respectively.
The study concludes that: “Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues.”
When asked if the city’s proposed ordinance seemed fair, Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County, said “yes and no.”
Miller, who will attend the city council’s meeting Tuesday, said he’s not against pit bulls, but owners need to remember that they originally were bred for dogfights and they can’t put them in situations that could bring those instincts out.
“It’s very hard,” he said. “I know the city feels it has to protect its citizens.”
Determining the exact breed of a dog also can pose problems now with so many mixed breeds, Miller added.
The city’s proposed ordinance names Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American bulldogs, bull terriers and “all dogs which have the appearance of being predominantly of the breed of dogs.”
Saying the ordinance is “more or less about the characteristics” of a dog rather than the breed, Miller said he understands the nature of the proposed ordinance, but is not sure what the final impact could be on residents.
Owners of pit bull-type dogs can avoid being covered by the proposed ordinance by having their dog evaluated by the Mason Dixon Kennel Club and by having a chip installed under the dog’s skin.
Miller said it’s important that dog owners, regardless of breed, learn how their animals think, and communicate appropriate behaviors to curb spontaneous bites or attacks.
Last week, the Maryland General Assembly formed a task force to study the court ruling on pit bulls, according to published reports.