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Two State Laws, Toledo City Ordinance Regulating Pit Bulls Upheld As Constitutional

2006-0690. Toledo v. Tellings, 2007-Ohio-3724.
Lucas App. No. L-04-1224, 2006-Ohio-975. Judgment reversed.
Moyer, C.J., Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O'Connor, J., concurs in judgment only.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2007/2007-Ohio-3724.pdf Adobe PDF Link opens new window.

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(Aug. 1, 2007) The Supreme Court of Ohio today held that two state statutes and a Toledo city ordinance that restrict and regulate the ownership of pit bull dogs do not violate the constitutional rights of dog owners. In a 7-0 decision authored by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, the Court reversed rulings of the 6th District Court of Appeals that held the challenged laws unconstitutional.

The case involved Paul Tellings of Toledo, who was cited by a dog warden for violating a city ordinance that limits ownership of dogs identified as pit bulls to one such animal per household, and imposes specific muzzling and confinement requirements whenever a pit bull is off its owner's premises. Tellings entered a plea of not guilty in Toledo Municipal Court. He subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him, challenging the constitutionality of Toledo Municipal Code 505.14(a) and two state statutes R.C. 955.22 and 955.11(A)(4)(a)(iii). The challenged provision of R.C. 955.11 includes all pit bulls within its definition of a “vicious dog.”

The trial court conducted an extensive hearing on Tellings' motion, and several witnesses testified for both parties regarding the traits and characteristics of pit bulls. The court found that as a breed, pit bulls are not more dangerous than other breeds, but that the evidence supported the city's claim that pit bulls present dangers in an urban setting. Based on that finding, the trial judge issued an opinion upholding the constitutionality of the challenged laws as a reasonable exercise of the government's police powers.

Tellings appealed to the 6th District Court of Appeals, which reversed the municipal court's decision. Citing the Supreme Court of Ohio's 2004 decision in State v. Cowan, the court of appeals held that the Toledo ordinance and challenged provisions of state law were unconstitutional on the basis that they denied pit bull owners procedural due process. The 6th District also held that the challenged laws denied pit bull owners equal protection of the law, and were unconstitutionally vague because they lacked a precise definition of what dogs qualify as “pit bulls.”

The city appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case. Writing for the Court in today's decision, Chief Justice Moyer reversed the 6th District's holdings on each of the constitutional issues raised by Tellings.

With regard to Tellings' procedural due process claims, the Chief Justice distinguished the facts of this case from the facts of Cowan, in which the Supreme Court held that a dog warden could not unilaterally determine that a dog was “vicious” based on a reported attack on a person without giving the owner notice and a hearing.

“In Cowan, the dogs were determined to be vicious under the first two subsections of R.C. 955.11(A)(4)(a) because they had caused injury to a person. Thus, the case concerned the dog warden's unilateral classification of the dogs as vicious,” he wrote. “However, in this case, the ‘vicious dogs' at issue are those classified as pit bulls under the third subsection of R.C. 955.11(A)(4)(a). Unlike the situation in Cowan, the General Assembly has classified pit bulls generally as vicious; there is no concern about unilateral administrative decision-making on a case-by-case basis. The clear statutory language alerts all owners of pit bulls that failure to abide by the laws related to vicious dogs and pit bulls is a crime. Therefore, the laws do not violate the rights of pit bull owners to procedural due process.”

In rejecting Tellings' substantive due process and equal protection claims, Chief Justice Moyer noted that the trial court heard extensive testimony regarding problems associated with pit bulls in urban settings, and cited that evidence as grounds to sustain the constitutionality of the challenged statutes.

“The trial court cited the substantial evidence supporting its conclusion that pit bulls, compared to other breeds, cause a disproportionate amount of danger to people,” Moyer wrote. “The chief dog warden of Lucas County testified that: (1) when pit bulls attack, they are more likely to inflict severe damage to their victim than other breeds of dogs; (2) pit bulls have killed more Ohioans than any other breed of dog; (3) Toledo police officers fire their weapons in the line of duty at pit bulls more often than they fire weapons at people and all other breeds of dogs combined; (4) pit bulls are frequently shot during drug raids because pit bulls are encountered more frequently in drug raids than any other dog breed.... The evidence presented in the trial court supports the conclusion that pit bulls pose a serious danger to the safety of citizens. The state and the city have a legitimate interest in protecting citizens from the danger posed by this breed of domestic dogs.”

Chief Justice Moyer's opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O'Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp.

Justice Maureen O'Connor concurred in judgment only, and entered a separate opinion expressing her “disapproval” of R.C. 995.11(A)(4)(a)(iii), the provision of state law classifying all pit bulls as “vicious dogs.” She wrote that data cited by the trial court regarding pit bull attacks did not reflect inherent violent characteristics of the breed but rather arose from deliberate efforts by some owners, including drug dealers, to increase a dog's aggression and lethalness through abuse or aberrant training.

“Almost all domestic animals can cause significant injuries to humans, and it is proper to require that all domestic animals be maintained and controlled. Laws to that effect are eminently reasonable for the safety of citizens and of the animal,” wrote Justice O'Connor. “Because the danger posed by vicious dogs and pit bulls arises from the owner's failure to safely control the animal, rational legislation should focus on the owner of the dog rather than the specific breed that is owned.”

Contacts
Adam Loukx, 419.245.1020, for the City of Toledo.

Sol Zyndorf, 419.244.7482, for Paul Tellings.