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City of Helena has no specific offense for a dog bite, ordinance overhaul may change that

Posted at 7:10 PM, Jun 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-09 00:23:26-04

In Helena a dog owner is responsible for making sure their animal is under their control, and not attacking other domestic animals or humans.

The City of Helena is considering a change to the Animal Control Ordinance, which would see new violations for dangerous dogs, and ease some of the burden on the Lewis and Clark Humane Society (LCHS) for caring for seized animals.

City Attorney Thomas Jodoin says a lot of the current code for animal control is redundant, conflicting and confusing.

“It has a lot of antiquated language that doesn’t really reflect core processes. It confuses criminal and civil processes that result in unnecessary delay,” said Jodoin.

Under current City Code, there is no specific violation for a dog that bites or attacks another animal or human.

“There is a ‘nuisance animal’ ordinance but it’s pretty vague,” said Animal Control Officer Mike Maynard. “The definition says that a nuisance animal is any animal that howls or barks for a prolonged period of time disturbing a person, or disturbing them by other means.”

The City has been using the nuisance “by other means” part of the law to prosecute situations where a dog attacks a person or other pet.

“It’s the only thing we can rely on right now because there’s often restitution involved. There’s veterinarian or medical bills if it’s serious enough,” said Jodoin.

The City has been using a civil designation and impoundment process for “potentially dangerous” or “dangerous” dogs. However, the civil designation doesn’t allow for the court to implement restitution for the injured party, which is why the city had been leaning on the “nuisance animal” violation.

The City wants to assure citizens the proposed changes for dangerous dogs are geared towards animals running at large.

The proposed ordinance has multiple protections for affirmative defense, which allows the dog to defend its owner, home or self from other attacks.

Another proposed change to the code would allow the City to request relinquishment of a dangerous dog if the owner isn’t meeting the requirement of the court or City code.

This proposed ordinance would create a process whereby the City can petition the Helena Municipal Court to order the relinquishment of a dog independent of any criminal prosecution.

Currently, municipal court has no authority to decide whether the owner should be allowed to keep the animal until a criminal conviction.

While the case is being heard, the care of the animal falls upon LCHS.

Executive Director Kelsee Dalton Watts says each animal that is involved in a court case can cost the shelter hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to care for the animal.

“The care can go on for a week to six months to a year, to two years depending on the situation,” said Dalton Watts. “So there really isn’t a clear end date which is what a lot of the ordinance is hoping to rectify.”

The proposed change would reduce the amount of time for a dangerous dog staying at the shelter down to around around 30 to 45 days.

The new code would also create an objective criteria for barking dogs.

A dog owner would be found in violation if the dog was making noise continuously, on three separate occasions in a week, for longer than 30 minutes at one time or longer than a combined 60 minutes in a 12 hours period.

“It will still require an owner or resident to keep track of the barking, that way we have some objective proof that it’s not just a neighbor being vindictive against another neighbor, and that it really is a dog that’s causing problems.” said Jodoim.

The City of Helena Commission approved the first reading of the proposed Animal Control Ordinance on Monday evening. There will be a public hearing held on Monday July 13th.