A state appeals court has declared unconstitutional Pierce County’s dangerous-dog ordinance, ruling the law meant to protect the public from vicious animals violates the due-process rights of their owners.
Auditor Julie Anderson, whose office oversees the county’s animal control department, said last week that the county plans to appeal.
In the meantime, Anderson has suspended the county’s practice of collecting fees from people seeking a hearing to challenge the designation of their dogs as dangerous. The county also will refund fees to those people who have paid but not yet had their hearing.
“This is a temporary measure until we can settle the law,” she said.
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A panel of the Division II Court of Appeals issued an opinion last week calling the fees unconstitutional. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the fees could deprive people who can’t afford to pay them the right to challenge the county’s unilateral declaration of their dogs as dangerous.
“Requiring the responding party to pay a fee to access any review of a government-initiated action could prevent many people from obtaining the review they are legally entitled to before deprivation of a property interest,” Justice Jill Johanson wrote for the court. Justices David Armstrong and Marywave Van Deren also signed the opinion.
Bellingham attorney Adam Karp, who represented a Pierce County woman who challenged the law, summed it up this way: “You shouldn’t have to purchase justice.”
The panel also ruled the county’s process for deeming an animal dangerous is not rigorous enough, making it too easy for government officials to declare an animal vicious.
Karp said the ruling could have repercussions for other governments that charge fees before giving dog owners a hearing to challenge their animals’ “dangerous” designations.
Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and Bonney Lake all charge such fees.