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County ordinance to let animal control, not courts, label dogs 'vicious'

July 19, 2011 |  6:54 pm

Getprev Animal control officers will have the right during administrative hearings to decide whether a dog is dangerous or vicious, Los Angeles County supervisors decided Tuesday.

Under current law, only a judge can declare a dog dangerous.

The Department of Animal Care and Control says the changes to the county code will save legal costs and make it easier to protect the public from dogs that have the potential to attack people.

A "vicious" dog is one that has been trained to fight or that severely injures or kills a person without provocation.

Once a dog is found to be "potentially dangerous" or "vicious," animal control can require the animal be confined, locked up, muzzled or dressed in a fluorescent yellow collar visible from 50 feet away. The owner can be fined and ordered to take the animal to obedience classes. In rare cases, the dog can be euthanized.

Critics of the new policy, such as Eric Preven, a Studio City screenwriter whose mother had her two chocolate labrador retrievers impounded, say an administrative hearing is unfair to pet owners.

"Instead of a judge who is impartial and neutral, it could be a hearing officer who works at the same place that took your dog,” Preven said. “It would be a little bit like a police officer pressing a crime against an individual and his partner being the judge and jury.”

The new ordinance, which must be voted on a second time before becoming law, allows the department to consider prior attacks that happened outside the county’s jurisdiction when deciding whether to label a dog "vicious." Hearing officers also will be able to consider not just bites, cuts and fractures caused by a dog, but serious illnesses such as a heart attack brought on by a dog attack.

Dog owners will be able to appeal the administrative finding to a Superior Court judge, but only if they do it within five days.


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Photo: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times