Animal Control officer harassing us over unregistered dog. Can arrests be made for fines not paid?
March 12, 2010 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Animal Control officer harassing us over unregistered dog. Can arrests be made for fines not paid?

The local Animal Control officer (this is in VT) has basically been harassing my wife all last year because I did not register my dog with the town. The dog belongs to me, but the Animal Control officer has seen my wife walking the dog and has determined that makes her a "caretaker" and responsible as well as liable for the dog.

If you don't register your dog with the town by April 1st, there is a fine of like $100. She has issued civil citations to my wife for this because I did not register my dog. However, she didn't get one citation. She has gotten something like a dozen of these citations. Apparently if you don't register your dog you are guilty of this infraction and liable for the fine every day that you continue to not register your dog. Or is it every hour? Or every other day? Or once a week? It's not clear.

We have been ignoring the citations or my wife has marked the denied and sent them back. Court dates have been issued, several times. We have simply ignored the whole thing. (Bad idea probably, I know.) So I think we have been losing the court battle. But the time and hassle it would take to go to court over it just isn't worth it. (The hassle of registering the dog probably is worth it, lesson learned, will just do it every year.)

I understand the easiest thing to do is just register the dog. My question isn't about that. This Animal Control officer showed up at my house the other day (a few days before one of my wife's court dates) and threatened my wife with arrest, saying that her husband (me) would have to come bail her out or she would have to come bail her husband (me) out , if we didn't register the dog and pay the fines by the court date.

Well, I registered the dog this year.

If we don't pay the fines, is it possible that this Animal Control officer can come and arrest my wife? I know she can't be arrested for not registering a dog, but can she be arrested for not having paid fines due to civil infractions?

And is there some way I can prevent this Animal Control officer from showing up and harassing and threatening my wife? (Besides registering the dog. Obviously that gets rid of the excuse, but doesn't guarantee the harassment to stop.) I believe this officer is on a bit of a power trip and while it's true we are supposed to register the dog, this is a person I don't want around my family.

(Anonymous because I think I have been a bit stupid in trying to ignore this issue only to have it come back to bite me. Thowaway email if further questions/answers would help:
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Speak to a lawyer, as well as perhaps the chief of your local police, and perhaps the head of the Animal Control department. There's definitely someone over this person's head that you can go to, and it sounds like you should.
posted by dinx2582 at 10:11 AM on March 12, 2010

can she be arrested for not having paid fines due to civil infractions
Yes. I doubt they're going to send the posse out, but a warrant could be issued which would pop up if she was pulled over for a traffic stop or similar. Pay the fine and be done with it.
posted by sanko at 10:16 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you have a selectboard member you are friendly with who you can talk to about this? I'm not sure about your town, but in my Vermont town the Animal Control officer is a town job, a teeny one, and they do have a certain amount of ability to issue citations and fines. That said, in most small towns there's a lot of give and take her [i.e. it's not like proerty taxes which are collected so that the town can meet their financial obligations as a whole and if you don't pay, th emoney has to come from someplace].

So, yeah, the Animal Control Officer may be on a power trip. That said, yeah, this was not at all the best way to manage your small-town politics. I'm also not sure whether you and your wife are married and live together and sort of normal married stuff. Because if so, the dog belongs to both of you and you're sort of co-responsible for your dog the way you would be for a child. I'm not sure why this became your wife's beef with the Animal Control Officer and not both of yours, but it might be worth it, if you're still more in the good graces of the folks to play good cop/bad cop and try to smooth things over.

So, to answer your main question. If the dog is registered the harassment should stop but it might mean the ACO might send the citation/collection to the police which would not be an improvement. I am fairly certain she can not be arrested, but you can call the police department or the constable in your town and they will let you know for certain. That said, you should be able to talk to your selectpeople and maybe see if there's wiggle room. In a town like mine there would definitely be wiggle room. There may be in yours. You'll want to get on message and have some sensible [if not honest] explanation for why you didn't register your dog, and then move forward "hey we're trying to make it right now" and see what happens. Best of luck. If I can give you any other local info, please feel free to contact me.
posted by jessamyn at 10:16 AM on March 12, 2010

I'm not a lawyer (not legal advice) so I could be way off base here but if there was a court date set that you skipped I would think you could be found in contempt of court and arrested for that.
posted by ghharr at 10:18 AM on March 12, 2010

You have no idea what went on in court? It's entirely possible that there's a bench warrant out for your, your wife, or the both of you. Judges have a lot of leeway in issuing bench warrants; no-shows for court dates and non-payment of fines are typical situations in which a bench warrant might be issued. A lawyer would know how to find out, and what to do about it.

We have simply ignored the whole thing. (Bad idea probably, I know.)

Contempt of court, in fact. That's definitely something you can get yourself arrested for.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:19 AM on March 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

I can't speak to Vermont specifically, but in most states/municipalities Animal Control officers are sworn police officers, and the tickets they write are as enforceable as those of other cops. You are likely now de jure guilty of several counts of at least petty misdemeanors.

The jurisdiction which adjudicates these matters, be it city or county, has levied these fines.

If traffic tickets/fines are ignored, they accrue penalties and arrest warrants are issued as a matter of course. Why would you expect animal-related fines to be any different?

You have behaved in a transparently irresponsible fashion by not carefully reading and complying with the tickets you have been issued. You may be able to bargain down some of the multiple counts and/or the late penalties that have accumulated, but you need to step up now rather than wait until they come arrest you at the worst possible time (at work, in front of in-laws or clients, etc.). If I found myself in your shoes I'd have a chat with a lawyer.

The lawyer may be needed because at this point you are not likely to be afforded any breaks or courtesies in the process, because you and your wife have demonstrated a certain level of contempt for the entire court system, from the ticketing officer on up, with your nonresponsiveness. Judges and bureaucrats tend not to respond well to that.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 10:19 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sorry, I somehow missed the "ignored court dates" aspect of this. That can definitely get you arrested.
posted by jessamyn at 10:21 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

And is there some way I can prevent this Animal Control officer from showing up and harassing and threatening my wife? (Besides registering the dog. Obviously that gets rid of the excuse, but doesn't guarantee the harassment to stop.)

Are you seriously suggesting that the Animal Control officer has some motive for harassing your wife OTHER than your flagrant flouting of a law designed to help all animal owners? If so, then you need the police. If not, then pay the damn registration fee already and quit making a scene.

Sorry for the huffiness, unpaid pet registrations are one of my "pet" peeves.
posted by Aquaman at 10:21 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Drawing on what Jessamyn said, I think it is possible you are making a false distinction in your belief that the dog belongs to YOU exclusively (rather than jointly you and your wife) and citations given to your wife are invalid. I also am concerned, because you keep using the word "harassment," which makes me wonder what behavior you are including under that term. Giving your wife citations while she is walking the dog is probably not harassment, if there is no more here than the repetitive issue of citations during a time when you and your wife declined to fix the problem by paying the fines and then registering the dog. I realize you say the officer showed up at your house, but I can't draw an opinion of that. When you are getting multiple citations, not paying them, blowing off court dates, making a potentially false distinction about who owns the dog, etc., I just feel there is more than meets the eye. Maybe showing up at the house is harassment, maybe it isn't. In the scheme of things, don't you want to just make this go away? Isn't it clear that rational negotiating, paying some amount of fines, and keeping the dog registered would do that?

Often, one may engage in behavior that in and of itself is not criminal or 'arrestable', but can result in a certain set of consequences triggering criminal procedures. Thus, it is hypothetically possible that while the citations alone were not sufficient to trigger an arrest, but failure to appear at the court date could be enough.

I want to be clear that this answer is entirely hypothetical. I don't know Vermont laws on spousal pet ownership, or on the offense grading for failure to license an animal. That said, it looks like you are digging yourself into an increasingly deep hole. I think the advice to determine whether you have a trusted friend or family member who can show a cooler, more rational head on this and help you figure out what you've got to pay to make this go away, is probably best. Because personally, that's what I am guessing this comes down to - a price tag on peace, and keeping your damn dog registered (in my town, you can get lifetime registration cheaply if your pet is microchipped, something our SPCA - from whom I adopted my dog - does for free on pets it adopts out).
posted by bunnycup at 10:34 AM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dude, you're behaving like an idiot. Of course the police can arrest you for unpaid civil fines. The ability to justifiably use force to get its way is what distinguishes the government from anyone else; first it asks nicely, then it puts you in a headlock. If the government could not do this, do you think anybody would pay any fines for anything?

The officer is just doing his/her job. Stop making it difficult and unpleasant for everyone.
posted by jon1270 at 10:47 AM on March 12, 2010 [11 favorites]

I hate to break this to you, but at least here in NC, if you have missed a court date - a court date that was set FOR ANY REASON, no matter how ludicrous you may think it is and even if you did not know about this court date - than a warrant has automatically been issued and you are liable for arrest at any time thereafter. And I do mean arrest as in they take you handcuffed to jail and throw you in there and your friends have to rally round and bail you out, which can take a couple of days. I am not kidding in the least here. You need a lawyer and you need one now because otherwise you and/or your wife might end up in jail and who is going to feed the dog then?
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2010

I am a lawyer, and while I'm not your lawyer, nor licensed in Vermont, there are certain legal truths here which should be enumerated.

1) Municipal authorities, including animal control, have the ability to issue citations for violations.

2) These citations can carry fines.

3) These citations require a response, and failing to either pay the fine or appear in court to contest them is a further violation, if not a midemeanor.

4) This can result in an enforceable warrant for your arrest.

You need to deal with this situation. We're talking about animal control, not some more powerful or important agency, so it's entirely possible that paying the fines--probably with penalties by now--will make this whole thing go away without needing to bring a lawyer into it. As long as you haven't been charged with a misdemeanor and all they want is their money, this should be an option.

The question is not whether you can get out of this without paying. The question is whether you want to make this go away without going to jail.

Pay the damn fine.
posted by valkyryn at 10:58 AM on March 12, 2010

One other point:

The animal control officer is feeling disrepected. She's just trying to do her job, and you are not respecting that. When people feel disrepected they get angry.

Start treating the animal control office with respect and she may do the same.
posted by alms at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am in Canada (Sherbrooke, Quebec, just across the border from you) so obviously the laws aren't EXACTLY the same, but somebody here was arrested, refused to pay a fine, and was jailed in lieu of fine payment here. In other words, here, at least, not paying animal registration fees to our equivalent of the Humane Society (the Société de Protection des Animaux, or SPA) can have significant, criminal-record-affecting, jail-time-causing, effects. Don't take this lightly.
posted by Shepherd at 1:13 PM on March 12, 2010

As everyone tells you, you are probably in definite risk of being in trouble.

I am not any sort of professional, and I wouldn't be in your situation to begin with because after a single citation, I would have taken care of business, but if I were in your shoes now, I would do the following:

1. Contact a lawyer.
3. Pay the citations.
4. Hope that's the worst of it.

I'm not sure why you and your wife thought you were so special that you were somehow exempt from registering your pet while everyone else has to, but grow up and follow the damn rules already.
posted by tastybrains at 2:20 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just want to jump in as someone who's seen overbearing and frankly unconstitutional animal control officers at work in the past -- even though they are sworn officers of the court, I can attest to the fact that some of them seem to feel a moral duty to perform unlawful searches, badger pet owners, and construct narratives about pet mistreatment that have no basis in fact. I resented the heck out of my local animal control office: they were door-pounding thugs (and I was a fully registered, responsible dog owner).

However, I've found that the courts treat them as they would any other officer of the law: for example, while the officer in question may have thought it was appropriate to fine you for every day you didn't register your dog, this is probably not what the law allows for, and the animal control officer is subject to the law, rather than the other way around. You will probably find the courts much saner than you do the animal control officer. However, while animal control is helpless without the courts (which probably fuels the unique set of complexes that some AC officers seem to have), the courts are serious business, and when they tell you to show up, you should show up.
posted by Valet at 5:57 PM on March 12, 2010

Tastybrains, the OP said they registered the dog.

Be proactive about paying the fines now. If they go to debt collections, then there can also be bench warrants issued. And you would not believe how many people call the day before, or even the morning of, their court case and think that's adequate time to take care of whatever issue they have with the courts. Don't put it off.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:54 PM on March 12, 2010

IndigoRain, OP does say that, but they also twice indicate that they might not have registered their dog yet. So, my advice stands -- if the dog isn't registered, register it already.

I understand the easiest thing to do is just register the dog. My question isn't about that.

And is there some way I can prevent this Animal Control officer from showing up and harassing and threatening my wife? (Besides registering the dog. Obviously that gets rid of the excuse, but doesn't guarantee the harassment to stop.) I believe this officer is on a bit of a power trip and while it's true we are supposed to register the dog, this is a person I don't want around my family.
posted by tastybrains at 11:17 PM on March 12, 2010

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