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Article published Saturday, March 4, 2006

Pit bulls Toledo's vicious-dog law declared 'unreasonable'
Celebrating the court victory yesterday are, from left, Jody Offenburg with Paul Tellings and Ms. Offenburg's daughter, Alexandra, 2; Justice, a bulldog; Mr. Tellings; Chance, a pit bull, Ms. Offenburg's sister Zita Offenburg, 17; Paul, Jr., 5; and seated, Jasmine, 6.
( THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER )

Toledo's vicious-dog ordinance restricting pit bull ownership was struck down yesterday as "unreasonable" by a 2-1 vote of the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals.

Judge William Skow, who wrote the majority opinion for the three-judge panel that decided the case, also deemed unconstitutional portions of the Ohio Revised Code upon which the Toledo law was based.

The city ordinance allowed residents to own only one dog considered vicious. It relies on the state definition, which defines a vicious dog as one that has bitten or killed a human, has killed another dog, or "belongs to a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog."

"Since we conclude that there is no evidence that pit bulls are inherently dangerous or vicious, then the city ordinance limitation on ownership is also arbitrary, unreasonable, and discriminatory," Judge Skow wrote. "If a citizen may own more than one nonvicious dog of a particular breed, then ownership of more than one nonvicious pit bull has no rational, real, or substantial relationship to a legitimate government interest."

Judge Arlene Singer joined

Judge Skow in the 2-1 ruling; Judge Dennis Parish dissented, but filed no written opinion with the court. He could not be reached for comment last night.

Acting City Law Director John Madigan said the city will appeal the appellate court's decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. He declined to speculate how yesterday's decision would affect state law.

The appellate ruling is a long-awaited victory for pit bull owners and supporters, who have advocated punishing the deed of an individual dog, not the breed. It overturns a 2004 ruling by Toledo Municipal Court Judge Francis Gorman that said the city's vicious-dog law may be unfair but is not unconstitutional.

For Paul Tellings, the East Toledo resident who brought the case to court, the ruling meant that he could take his dogs - two pit bulls and an American bull dog - for a walk yesterday without breaking the law for the first time in years. He said that pit bulls are like any other dog and will be vicious only if raised or trained that way.

"If you have somebody who is beating a dog, or neglecting a dog, that's when dogs get a temperament," said Mr. Tellings, 31, who has two small children in the home with his dogs. "My dogs are spoiled. If you treat your dogs like family, they'll act like family."

The decision is a blow for the Lucas County dog warden's office, which enforced Toledo's ordinance. Yesterday, deputies were given instructions to no longer cite owners who have multiple pit bulls, who do not have insurance on the animals, and who do not have them properly contained whether in their yard or while walking them.

Dog Warden Tom Skeldon, an advocate for breed-specific legislation, said that the decision all but takes away his ability to protect the public from vicious dogs.

"We're not in the pit-bull business anymore. We're not in the vicious-dog business anymore," Mr. Skeldon said. "They've taken away our ability to enforce containment, whether it's a German shepherd or a pit bull, whether it has bitten somebody or not."

He added that the recent case where a Presa Canario and American bulldog mix attacked a 12-year-old Oregon girl would not be affected by the ruling. Both breeds have been determined to be "commonly known as a pit bull" in separate rulings in Toledo Municipal Court.

The dog attacked the neighbor girl Tuesday as she was standing by a cage its owner was trying to place it in. The attack, witnesses said, was unprovoked.

Mr. Skeldon said the dog was surrendered to him by the owner and will be destroyed after it is determined it does not have rabies.

The victim, Nicole Brown, was in fair condition yesterday at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. The dog warden said her legs were severely bitten in the attack.

After reading the appeals court ruling, Rebecca Zietlow, a law professor at the University of Toledo, said Toledo's law "failed to provide dog owners a meaningful opportunity to be heard on whether a dog is vicious or dangerous."

"If Toledo wants to limit the ownership of vicious dogs, it would have to enact another law that doesn't have these procedural problems and that doesn't single out pit bulls," she said.

Glen Bui, the vice president of American Canine Foundation, said his organization supported Mr. Tellings and his attorney, Sol Zyndorf. He said his organization has long advocated for stricter laws against dogs that have proven themselves vicious but has fought laws throughout the country that point to all pit bulls as dangerous.

Mr. Bui called yesterday's ruling "monumental." He said attempts to create breed-specific legislation have "gotten out of control" across the country.

"This is the first time ever in the United States that a published opinion has ruled that breed-specific legislation is unconstitutional," he said.

Mr. Skeldon said pit bulls who are collected by his office because they are running loose will still be subject to an additional $100 fee beyond fees charged other dog owners. That fee was approved by the county commissioners, the dog warden said, and will continue to be collected until the office is legally told otherwise.

In spite of yesterday's setback, Mr. Skeldon said he still intends to travel to Ontario tomorrow to testify on behalf of breed-specific legislation.

Contact Erica Blake at:
eblake@theblade.com
or 419-724-6076.


 RECENT RELATED ARTICLES

High court to consider if Toledo law is unreasonable | 08/03/2006
Pit bulls must be muzzled in city again | 05/11/2006
Pit bull law returns in Toledo -- for now | 05/10/2006
Ontario seeks input from local official on breed-specific laws | 03/03/2006




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