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Lawsuit challenges Prince George’s ban on pit bulls

A decades-old ban on pit bulls in Prince George’s County is being challenged in federal court through a class action lawsuit that calls the ordinance vague and discriminatory.

The county’s policy, which has been in place since 1997, applies to dogs that are at least 50 percent Pit Bulls, which is not a breed but a category of dogs that includes American Pit Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers.

The lawsuit, filed in July, claims the county’s pit bull ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, not based on science and encourages “seriously discriminatory enforcement.” The lawsuit also alleges that the ban violates the Fair Housing Act by forcing residents to give up their dogs or move out of Prince George’s County.

Advocates say pit bull bans are racist and ineffective. This Maryland suburb supports them.

The original plaintiffs in the lawsuit included the family of Prince George, whose dogs, Bella and Mimi, were removed by animal control officers over the summer after they escaped from their yard and got into a fight with a neighbor’s dog. . Bella and Mimi, both emotional support dogs, are registered with the county as mongrels and mastiffs, respectively.

But the county claimed, based on its analysis, that the dogs are pit bulls and therefore illegal under local law, according to court documents.

Last week, Richard Rosenthal, a New York attorney representing the family, filed a motion to intervene on behalf of other potential plaintiffs in the lawsuit who say they have had similar disputes with the county. about their dogs.

The litigation has now been put on hold while the county and Rosenthal’s clients try to reach an agreement on enforcement of Prince George’s pit bull ordinance, court filings show. The parties are scheduled to meet again in early October for a settlement conference, according to an order issued Tuesday by a federal judge overseeing the case.

A county spokesman declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. County court filings asking for the case to be dismissed assert that a dog owner’s property is subject to police power and may be regulated for reasons of public welfare and safety. The county also says in court documents that the “regulation does not offend equal protection.”

Rosenthal, known nationally as “the dog lawyer,” was first contacted by Denise, Sophia and Stephany Venero in July, after the county seized their dogs and refused to return them, according to court filings.

He said he decided to take on the case once he realized “how egregious what the county was doing here.”

Nearly 400 pit bulls were euthanized last year in Prince George’s, officials say

For years, animal advocates in Prince George’s County and across the country have been pushing for state and local governments to repeal their bans on pit bulls, ordinances they say are linked to racism and classism. and they are not based on science.

But supporters of these bans have resisted the argument, saying the rules are rooted in concern for public safety.

In the recently filed federal lawsuit challenging the Prince George’s County bans, Rosenthal argues that the issues overlap legally, basing much of his argument on what he claims is a violation of due process. County policies lack specific guidance on how animal control officials determine if a dog is indeed a pit bull, she said.

County employees don’t rely on a DNA test, Rosenthal said, but on a visual analysis by officers who may or may not have training on the subject.

“If you can’t tell what a pit bull is with any degree of accuracy, then your application violates due process,” Rosenthal said. “And since there are no written standards in print, how do you defend yourself?”

The county has also denied in court that the regulation is vague, overly broad or a violation of due process.

The lawsuit also addresses some specific issues that Rosenthal says are in direct violation of the county’s own policy as written.

Under county code, owners of animals in official custody under the dangerous dog ordinance are supposed to be notified within 48 hours of their right to a preliminary hearing. At the hearing, the county code says, officials can determine whether owners are capable of safely restraining their animal pending the Animal Control Commission’s decision on the animal’s dangerousness.

But in this case, the Veneros received no such notice, the lawsuit states. When they proactively requested a preliminary hearing, the county denied it, informing the owners that officials had determined their dogs were illegal pit bulls and therefore exempt from a preliminary hearing.

The owners denied that their dogs were pit bulls and provided documentation of what they said were their true breeds. They also expressed concern about his medical care at the animal shelter. But according to the lawsuit, the county did not respond.

One author says she hoped to advance the debate about pit bulls. Instead, she became a target.

Eleven days after the dogs fought, the owners finally received the “notice of violation” from the county. The notice said the county had decided not to to return the dogs after “thorough review” of the case. The dog owners were told they could pay a non-refundable fee of $150 per animal to appeal the decision.

The owners were eventually able to reach an agreement with county officials to house the dogs outside of Prince George’s. But when the dogs were picked up, the lawsuit states, they were both sick and had lost weight.

Once the Veneros were able to have their hearing before the Animal Control Commission, Rosenthal said, the commission Officials ruled that the county had not sufficiently proven that Bella and Mimi were pit bulls.

The dogs have since been returned to their owners.

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