«THE BIG BOOK OF WOOF TABLE OF CONTENTS ABOUT THIS HANDBOOK INTRODUCTION CHAPTERS I. DOG IMMUNIZATION AND LICENSING IMMUNIZATION LICENSING 1. ...»
VLCT Big Book of Woof, May 2014 Page 27 substantiate the allegations made by answering any questions the selectboard may have and aid it in assessing how much weight to give his or her testimony. Yet in the final analysis, neither complainant nor even the owner’s presence has a bearing on the selectboard’s statutory obligation to investigate the incident and conduct the hearing. If it were, it would be impossible to determine what to do with a stray dog that has bitten someone. Anyone can testify who has relevant information about the incident, and it is the testimony received during the hearing that will be a basis for the selectboard’s findings of facts, conclusions of law, and decision.
There is one final notice that must be provided and that’s the public notice – but you wouldn’t be aware of it by reading the vicious dog hearing statute. Though vicious dog hearings lack a specific statutory public notice requirement, they, like other quasi-judicial hearings, must also be held in the public21 and must be adjudicated by at least a bare quorum of the selectboard.
Providing public notice also accomplishes another important objective: it informs those other than the owner and the complainant (victim) of the opportunity to testify. There may be people who witnessed the attack or who have had past experiences with the dog in question who can help inform your decision. Also, keep in mind that the incident prompting the hearing and demanding your attention is a potential public safety hazard and some in the public will be concerned about whether the threat is real and how it is addressed. More likely than not, unless the hearing falls within the timeframe for the selectboard’s next regularly scheduled meeting, it will have to be warned as a special meeting. The time, place, and purpose of a special meeting must be publicly announced at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. The notice must be posted in or near the town clerk's office and in at least two other public places in town. Also, unless waived previously, notice must be given orally or in writing to each member of the board. Any editor, publisher, or news director of any newspaper or radio or television station serving the area that requests notification of special meetings must also be notified. 1 V.S.A. § 312(c),(5). (A Model Vicious Dog Public Hearing Notice is in Appendix C.)
3. What to Do With the Dog During the Hearing?
Ideally, the dog which is the subject of the complaint would be impounded pending the duration of the hearing and the issuance of the selectboard’s protective order, but if the town doesn’t have its own pound but rather contracts with the regional animal humane society, this may not be possible. Many humane societies will refuse to house a dog accused of committing a vicious attack. In that instance, the dog most likely will stay with its owner during this time. If the selectboard fears another attack or that the dog will be removed from the town, it should attempt to impound the dog and shelter it temporarily with a local kennel and allocate the costs to the dog’s owner. If the dog is already in the town’s possession, then it should have a provision in its animal/dog control ordinance that the dog will not be released (if at all) until the selectboard renders its decision as to whether or not it is vicious and the boarding fees are paid.
4. The Purpose of the Hearing Before we walk through the hearing, it is important to know what the selectboard is trying to achieve. The hearing has two principal objectives. The first is to determine whether “the domestic pet or wolf-hybrid is found to have bitten a victim without provocation...” If the Only the deliberations of quasi-judicial proceedings are specifically exempted from Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
VLCT Big Book of Woof, May 2014 Page 28 selectboard finds this to be the case, then the selectboard “shall make such order for the protection of persons as the facts and circumstances of the case may require...” So your first objective is to find out whether the dog bit someone without provocation. This should be revealed easy enough by asking the victim and any available witness questions surrounding how the attack occurred. If the selectboard finds that the dog was provoked, it would state in its written opinion that, given the following facts, the selectboard finds that the dog was provoked and therefore is not considered vicious. If the dog was not provoked, then your second objective is to determine what measure the selectboard should impose to protect the public from this dog.
The punishment imposed must be warranted by “the facts and circumstances of the case...” The imposition of this next level of inquiry necessitates additional fact finding on behalf of the selectboard. Failure to fit the punishment to the crime increases the likelihood that the selectboard’s decision will be appealed and its protective order vacated or modified.
That is exactly what happened to the City of Rutland Board of Aldermen in the case of Miller v.
City of Rutland, Docket No. 513-7-10 Rdev. The facts of the case date from April 3, 2010:
Rutland resident John Moore was walking his dog in Ciofreddi Park when he noticed two dogs running towards them. Both were leashed, however neither was under the control of their owner, William Miller. One of the dogs, a black lab-mix named Zoey, attacked Mr. Moore’s rat-terrier mix by grabbing it around its neck. Mr. Moore was injured trying to protect his dog, but it should be noted that Zoey did not bite him. Rather, he cut his thumb on her tooth trying to extricate his dog from her clutches. Both Mr. Moore and his dog received medical attention for their wounds and Mr. Miller was cited for Zoey’s bad behavior. This wasn’t the first time that Zoey had exhibited aggressive behavior. With an obvious fondness for clichés, Zoey twice attacked the Millers’ mailman, who had to fight her off with his mailbag, though the dog did not bite him either time. The Rutland City Board of Aldermen held a hearing and found Zoey to be a vicious dog under a provision of its ordinance defining a vicious dog as one “which attacks or bites a person or other domestic pet and the person or pet attacked or bitten requires medical attention.” City of Rutland Ordinance § 13-2552(e). The ordinance, like the state’s vicious dog statute, requires the aldermen to hold a hearing upon written complaint and make an order to protect the public if the dog is found to be vicious. Having found Zoey to be vicious, the aldermen permanently barred her from the city limits.
The Millers, unwilling to give up Zoey without a fight, appealed the City’s decision. The Rutland Superior Court agreed with the aldermen that Zoey did commit a vicious act and fit the City’s definition of a “vicious” dog. However, it did not agree with its protective measure to banish her. Instead the court appointed a veterinarian to examine Zoey for aggressive and vicious behavior. On the basis of the veterinarian’s findings, the court lifted the aldermen’s protective order and found Zoey’s actions warranted no more than to be kept under the control of its owners at all times, to avoid engaging in further vicious acts, and that she be examined by a veterinarian who the Millers must also consult with regarding aggression training.
The Rutland case highlights this two-tiered analysis by a selectboard in conducting a vicious dog
1. determining whether the dog bit the victim without provocation; and
2. rendering a protective order commensurate with the facts and circumstances of the case.
Returning to our original question: Is it the job of the selectboard in these instances to find that a dog committed a vicious act or, alternatively, to find that it is a “vicious” dog? The answer is that VLCT Big Book of Woof, May 2014 Page 29 it’s really its job to do both. This doesn’t mean that, like the Rutland Superior Court, the selectboard must bring in an experienced veterinarian or local animal shelter employee who conducts such tests as part of the intake process for determining whether dogs are “adoptable” to conduct a vicious dog assessment – though this is certainly something that an owner could do and enter into evidence or an evaluation that the selectboard could order and attribute the costs to the owner of the dog. What it does mean is that the selectboard should do its due diligence to ensure its protective order emanates from the facts and circumstances of the particular case before it, is reasonably related to protecting the public safety, and is fair to the dog and its owner.
THE HEARINGNow that we’ve gotten the notice, what to do with the dog during the hearing, and the hearing’s purpose out of the way, we can turn our attention to the hearing itself.
What does the legislature mean when it says you must conduct a vicious dog hearing? What is meant by the word “hearing”? State law gives us a definition of what a “quasi-judicial hearing” is, and since you’re not actually a court of law, this definition describes the proceedings of local bodies that are acting like a court. A quasi-judicial proceeding is a “case in which the legal rights of one or more persons who are granted party status are adjudicated, which is conducted in such a way that all parties have opportunity to present evidence and to cross-examine witnesses presented by other parties, which results in a written decision, and the result of which is appealable to a higher authority.” 1 V.S.A. § 310(5). The selectboard is a quasi-judicial board in this context because it is acting “like” a court. Breaking this definition down into its component parts, we can see the process of a hearing take shape: (1) the rights of persons are being considered; (2) the parties must have an opportunity to present evidence; (3) parties may crossexamine witnesses and question evidence presented; (4) the hearing must result in a written decision; and (5) the decisions is appealable to a higher authority (in this instance, superior court).
The legislature directs you to provide notice to the person (owner) whose dog (property) he or she may lose (be deprived of) with a hearing (an opportunity to be heard). If the combination of these parentheticals sounds familiar, it should. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution states in part, “... nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...” We know from this, therefore, that the due process rights of dog owners are at play here. But what does that mean? Due process is the administration of justice by government according to established rules. It protects citizens from the abuses of government power by ensuring that the hearing process under valid laws is fair and impartial. Essential elements of procedural due process therefore include not only one’s rights to notice and an opportunity to be heard but also the right to a fair hearing before an impartial decision maker.
(That’s you!)22 There are many elements to a fair hearing, but at a minimum they include the right to know and confront all evidence (which requires all evidence to be presented only in the context of the open hearing and managed properly), the right to an orderly proceeding (which requires rules governing process and participation), and the right to a hearing free of ethical dilemmas (which requires the management of conflicts of interests, including ex parte communications– i.e., speaking with participants outside of the proceeding – and prejudging the On this point the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.” Murchison, supra, at 136, 75 S.Ct. 623.
1. Rules of Procedure With these factors in mind, we can now establish rules of procedure to ensure these constitutional protections are in place and to facilitate an efficient and effective hearing. (Those rules, VLCT Model Rules of Procedure for Selectboard Vicious Dog/Wolf-Hybrid Hearings, can be found in Appendix E). The rules are important not only to ensure that a fair hearing is protective of the dog owner’s rights but also serve as a road map for the selectboard.