Why We Mention Pets and Animal Matters on Our Website

Dear Client,

You asked why we mention pets and animal matters on our website. Let me explain.

You hopefully consider yourself law-abiding. And you'd never suspect you could confront something akin to a criminal charge for something you didn't even do! But, that's what happens to dog and other pet owners when their pet is accused of having done something that qualifies them to be declared a "dangerous" animal under Virginia law.

Notice, I said the matter is "akin to a criminal charge." That is, because it is technically what they call a civil violation. A civil violation sounds sort of courteous, polite, and technical. Let's review the sort of fun these sorts of cases are.

Your civil matter begins when the authorities arrive at your house in several marked law-enforcement vehicles. The agency calls itself Animal Care and Control, but notice the uniforms, badges, and full gun and utility belts? That's because the agency is part of the Sheriff's Office and the officers are sworn law-enforcement officers just like any other deputy sheriffs. They will politely ask you to sign a court summons, under the polite threat of arresting you if you don't. Sound civil to you?

Oh, and then they impound your pet. That's the civil word for arresting your dog and taking your family member to animal jail. For the privilege of allowing your beloved pet to stay in one of Animal Control's dirty metal cages, you will be billed approximately $10/night, until court, which will be at least a few weeks off. Feeling the civil fun yet? Wait until you get to court and you find out that this "civil violation" will be prosecuted by the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office! That's the same agency that prosecutes rape, murder, and robbery defendants!

Still not concerned because it's just a civil violation? Perhaps you will even accept their invitation to put an immediate end to all of this misery. Would you like to guess what sort of civil remedy Animal Control will suggest? Try, euthanasia. Which is the civil way of saying your dog is getting the death penalty.

"Can I go to jail?", you ask. My response is, "No, ... not at first." But, jail definitely figures into all this. And, in fact, once you are in a situation of facing jail, your options are either bad or worse. Here's how it happens. If you lose your case in the district court and the judge declares your pet to be a dangerous dog, your two options are to either euthanize the pet, or buy special insurance, buy special fencing, buy special signage, muzzle your pet, neuter or spay your pet, and buy a special tag or electronic implant. Your compliance with all these things must be certified annually. And, there's where jail comes into play. If you fail to comply, annually, you can be charged criminally. If your animal is alleged to bite someone, you will definitely be charged criminally. And if the authorities believe your animal bit someone and you could have prevented it, you could be charged with a felony! That's right. You could go to prison if your dangerous dog bites someone and the judge thinks you could have prevented it.

Unfortunately for their pets, most pet owners faced with this sort of nightmare situation wait too long to call an attorney or they can't afford any option other than to simply roll over and give up. But maybe this scenario has your hackles up and your teeth bared for a fight. If so, call us. And call us early.

I had a case just like this in 2019 and the owner didn't call until after they had been ambushed by the prosecution in the General District Court. The owner had the impression it would be like going to court for a traffic ticket. Worse yet, after losing in district court, the owner did not realize that there was still hope and was about to put the family's beloved pet to sleep, when someone encouraged the owner to start fighting back. The owner called us, and we appealed to the Circuit Court and we fought back.

My one mistake in handling the trial was failing to warn the circuit court judge that it would be a long afternoon in court that day. It was a long day because we responded to the prosecution's case with every tool in the defense toolkit. We obtained multiple professional behavioral assessments of the animal. We had multiple witnesses who testified to their experience with the animal and the animal's non-aggressive character. We called Animal Control officers to the stand and got such favorable testimony for the defense from them that the prosecutor ended up attacking the credibility of the Sheriff's Department's own deputies! That caused some ripples well after court, I'm told.

We even brought forth an alibi defense and asserted that the animal had been enclosed safely at home. We tied the whole case together by showing that the complainant could not be trusted because she had her eyes on profiting by a lawsuit against the owner for pain and suffering, as soon as the dog was found guilty. In the end, the combined defenses were enough to raise a genuine issue of doubt for the judge. The court acquitted the animal, sparing my client months of boarding fees and the awful outcome of putting down a beloved family member.

I know that for some pet owners, spending the money for a lawyer for their pet would be like spending money for serious pet surgery: it simply is not in the family budget. That's a tragedy. Family comes first. So, if you come to us with this sort of situation, we promise we will work with you on your fees and prepare the case as if it were our own family member on trial. Because we know your pet is your family too.