Two Sylvania Township residents are calling for a Michigan law to be changed while they scramble to find a way to save their Ohio dogs from a looming death sentence after an unsuccessful court appeal.
Janni Juhasz and her daughter, Katalina Juhasz, say Section 20 of the Michigan Dog Law of 1919 is antiquated and needs to be reworked. The law dictates that a dog found guilty of damaging or killing livestock must be killed.
“I don’t think it should be an automatic death sentence,” the younger Ms. Juhasz said. “There’s dogs that bite people that don’t even get euthanized.”
"Don’t we value human life more than we value animals, than livestock?” her mother, Mrs. Juhasz, added.
On May 2, a husky named Nala owned by Ms. Juhasz and a husky mix named Bugger owned by Mrs. Juhasz were found inside a barn on Whiteford Center Road just north of the Ohio-Michigan state line and a little more than a mile from their home on Vail Avenue in Sylvania Township. Two show-quality pigs owned by Stephanie Sonnenberg had been killed and a third was injured.
According to a report filed by the responding animal control officer, Ms. Sonnenberg said she was going to feed the pigs, which were destined for the county 4-H fair, when she saw a dog jump out of a pig pen. She grabbed the dog and dialed 911, then secured the dog before entering the area to check on the pigs. She noticed a second dog still in the pen, which she said charged at her. She used a board to block the attack and to keep the dog inside the area.
The dogs were taken into custody by Monroe County Animal Control, where they have been ever since.
As required by the Michigan dog law, Bedford Township held a “show cause” hearing July 25. The hearing officer, who is also the township ordinance enforcement officer, determined the dogs were responsible. He also determined that Ms. Sonnenberg should be compensated $9,000 and directed that the damages be assessed directly against the Juhaszes. The Juhaszes also were to pay $2,580 for the care of their dogs while they were held by the county.
Ohio law provides for the owners of livestock to receive compensation if their animals are injured or killed by a dog. But the Ohio law does not require a dog to be killed for the transgression if found guilty.
Ironically, Ohio allows the death penalty for humans, but Michigan has banned the death penalty since 1847.
“It’s more about civil liability," said Julie Lyle, director of Lucas County Canine Care & Control, which investigates dog attacks on livestock in Lucas County.
Ms. Lyle said her office investigates maybe one livestock attack per year as Lucas County is partially urban.
The Juhaszes maintain that the investigation regarding their dogs was poorly handled. They say the evidence doesn’t add up, including why there was not more blood on the dogs’ muzzles and paws if they indeed had been responsible for scratching the pigs and biting their haunches and ears. They suggest the pigs were already dead when the dogs smelled them and went to investigate, possibly rolling in some of the blood.
But instead of contesting the hearing officer’s ruling of their dogs’ guilt, they appealed to the Monroe County Circuit Court on August 21, claiming the Michigan Dog Law of 1919 is unconstitutional. In their filing, they claim the law denied them their right to due process.
Judge Michael LaBeau issued his ruling on the matter Feb. 21, affirming the decision of the hearing officer and declaring the law constitutional. But the judge reversed the hearing officer’s direct assessment of damages as the Michigan law dictates the county commissioners are to use county funds to pay Ms. Sonnenberg.
Philip Goldsmith, who is both the Bedford Township attorney and the Monroe County attorney, said the county commissioners will discuss the matter in a public meeting and can adjust the amount of damages to be paid to Ms. Sonnenberg.
“Then the board will make a determination of whether or not the compensation for those damages should be sought against the Juhaszes” in a civil court action, he said. “More than likely, they will do that.”
Mr. Goldsmith said the township has had no authority in the case outside of being required to hold the initial hearing.
“The township has no further involvement,” he said. “Our only function in this has ever been to do what is required of us by the state statute. The township does not have any authority in this matter.”
Throughout the appeals process, Nala and Bugger have been given a stay of execution. The Juhaszes have until March 14 to take the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, Mr. Goldsmith said.
“We’ll let March 14 come and go,” he said, adding that if no further appeal is filed, the dogs will be killed in accordance with the law the following week.
J. Henry Lievens, a Monroe County commissioner and Ms. Sonnenberg’s attorney, said out-of-court negotiations between Ms. Sonnenberg and the Juhaszes and their insurance company regarding compensation for the pigs has halted. He added that “ongoing Internet bullying and harassment” has further victimized the Sonnenberg family. There is a Facebook page aimed at saving the dogs.
“To be quite candid, I’m reluctant to even suggest there might be further negotiations considering how those have been twisted to embarrass the Sonnenbergs,” Mr. Lievens said. “Under Michigan law, they are entitled to compensation for the loss of their livestock and for the litigation if they choose to file a suit or what have you. This has been a very emotional time and they want to put it behind them.”
Records in Toledo Municipal Court show Mrs. Juhasz has been cited three times for dogs running at large, while Ms. Juhasz has been cited once.
The Juhaszes decided Thursday to search for a new attorney. Because they are without representation, they are unsure whether they will file an appeal before the deadline.
“Right now, we’re in a tough situation,” Ms. Juhasz said. “But we’re still trying.”