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Published: 6/8/2010

Senate receives bill to amend dog law

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A recently approved House bill stripping the "pit bull" from Ohio's definition of "vicious dog" has made its way to the Senate, where such proposals have not been warmly received.

The amendment was added to a bill increasing penalties for animal cruelty just before House Bill 55 left the lower chamber.

The measure has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee but is unlikely to see action before lawmakers return to Columbus this fall at the earliest.

With control of the governor's office and Ohio House up for grabs, there's been some discussion that lawmakers may not return until after the Nov. 2 election. Any bill that doesn't reach the governor's desk before the end of the year will die.

"I'm going to start lobbying hard to have that amendment added to another piece of legislation if [the bill] doesn't go anywhere," said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova), sponsor of a stand-alone "pit-bull" bill mired in a House committee.

"Enough people are just getting uncomfortable with the fact that Ohio is the only state that discriminates against breeds," she said.

Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon), who offered the amendment on the floor, said he hopes the bipartisan support seen in the House would bode well in the Senate.

"The arbitrary killing of dogs based on breed as opposed to tendencies demonstrated by a dog really makes no sense," he said. "The House viewed it as an injustice."

State law deems a dog "vicious" if, without provocation, it has killed or seriously injured a person, killed another dog, or is of the general breed known as a "pit bull."

Tom Skeldon, former Lucas County dog warden, said the amendment would place "pit bulls" on equal footing with other breeds under a state law already weakened by the Ohio Supreme Court. The one tool under the law not rendered toothless was the provision that automatically designated "pit bulls" as vicious.

By a vote of 4-3 in 2004, the Ohio Supreme Court found part of the state's dog law unconstitutional on the grounds that it deprived owners of a means to challenge a decision that their dogs are dangerous or vicious. Lawmakers have not acted since to deal with the due-process problem.

"No dogs could be determined to be vicious unless there was an independent board set up to determine whether the dog was provoked or not, whether it is vicious or not," said Mr. Skeldon, who retired after a backlash over his high dog euthanasia rates.

"It can't be a local board," he said. "It has to be a mechanism put in place by state legislation, and the state legislature has refused to do that."

Three years later, the court upheld the law as it applies to "pit bulls." It ruled that the breed-specific language did not suffer the same constitutional deficiency because the "pit bull" is automatically deemed "vicious" with no room for "arbitrary decision-making" by law enforcement.

"Whatever the law is, that's what our dog warden will do," said John Borell, assistant Lucas County prosecutor.

If the law should pass, he said it would be interesting to see if cities like Toledo would remove "pit-bull" specific language from their ordinances or seek to enforce them under their home-rule authority.

Most recently, Mr. Borell advised the dog warden not to enforce the city's ordinance after it was declared unconstitutional by a Toledo Municipal Court judge who found it conflicts with state law.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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