The convoluted history of Louisville's dangerous-dog ordinance took another turn on Friday when a federal judge upheld most of the law but declared one part unconstitutional.
The Louisville Kennel Club and other groups — including veterinarians, pet owners and businesses — sued Louisville metro government over its animal-control ordinance passed in December 2007. They alleged that various sections of the law were unconstitutional, vague, required forfeiture of pets without adequate due process and allowed illegal warrantless searches and seizures of property. U.S. District Judge Charles Simpson III upheld most of the law in his 25-page ruling, except for one part that allows the city to keep a dog that has been seized because of inhumane treatment — even if the owner is ultimately found to be innocent of the charge. The wording in that section of the ordinance seems to be “poorly drafted and does not properly represent the intent,” the judge wrote. “Presumably most of the animals kept under this ordinance have to be euthanized. … Consequently we must hold that the portion that would permanently deprive a pet owner of his property, absent a finding of guilt, is unconstitutional.” The judge also faulted a provision that allows the city to take away dog licenses for any state or federal crime, even crimes not related to animals. “This section is more problematic than those discussed above, because it appears to allow the director (of Metro Animal Services) to impose a civil punishment for any reason at all, leaving citizens unaware of what actions might constitute grounds for license revocation,” the ruling says. Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the Jefferson County attorney's office, said his office is pleased because the judge upheld “about 95 percent” of the ordinance. He said it's possible that the ordinance might have to be tweaked by the Louisville Metro Council to reflect the judge's ruling. For the most part, “the constitutionality of the ordinance was affirmed,” Patteson said. The groups suing the city were equally pleased.
Jon Fleischaker, the attorney representing the Louisville Kennel Club and other groups, said the ruling is helpful because now his clients have a standard they can use to judge how the ordinance is being enforced. “That's a big plus for us,” Fleischaker said. “If metro government applies enforcement the way the judge interpreted it, then it solves a lot of problems, one of which was nobody knew for sure what it meant. Nobody knew for sure how the city would enforce it.” If the government enforces the ordinance in a way that's different from the judge's interpretation, “then we can go after them and deal with that on a case-by-case basis,” Fleischaker said. “I would rather win every point, but having said that, we are not unhappy with the ruling,” he said. Donna Herzig, president of the Louisville Kennel Club, said her organization was “very pleased.” “What he's done is define the way these provisions should be interpreted,” Herzig said of the judge. The animal control ordinance was originally passed by the Metro Council in December 2006 after a contentious meeting that lasted until 4 a.m. The law was then changed slightly in April 2007. But even that version didn't satisfy some council members, who in the summer of 2007 formed an ad hoc committee that spent three months studying the ordinance and hearing testimony from animal-behavior experts from all over the country. Those meetings resulted in the current ordinance, which was passed in December 2007. The lawsuit was originally filed in state court, but the city asked for it to be moved to federal court because it involved the constitutionality of the ordinance, Fleischaker said. Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16thth District, chairman of the ad hoc committee, called the ruling important but said the council needs to know more about how the ordinance is being enforced from Animal Services Director Gilles Meloche. “I think the ruling shows that most of the changes we made were the right changes,” Downard said. Reporter Dan Klepal can be reached at (502) 582-4475. Reporter Sean Rose can be reached at 582-4199. http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2009910020371