MANATEE -- Judge Andrew Owens has declared a Florida law mandating dogs that cause severe injury to people be euthanized as unconstitutional, meaning the now-famous dog Padi will not be put to death.
Padi, a 4-year-old male Labrador mix, bit a child's ear June 4 when the child and his babysitter were visiting the Pet Clinic in Bradenton, which is owned by Padi's owner, Paul Gartenberg. All parties generally agree that Padi had gone into a corner of the office to get away from the child and the child followed. Accounts differ on whether the child lunged at Padi or if Padi lunged at the child first.
Because the injury was considered severe and required stitches and reconstructive surgery, Florida statute mandated that Padi be euthanized without regard for the circumstances of the event. The case went to court, and in a decision finished Monday, Owens declared the law unconstitutional because it does not fulfill the intent of the statute and it is "arbitrary and unduly oppressive."
"(The statute) results in an unconstitutional delegation of discretion in animal control authorities insofar as the statute provides animal control authorities no guided authority to select the severity of consequences for a dog's actions," the ruling states.
Gartenberg said there were hundreds of bite wounds last year in Manatee County.
"There's some selective enforcement that goes on; it's not clear-cut how they deal with each and every one of them," Gartenberg said. "So maybe this will make it easier for them and stop somebody else from going through the same situation that I have."
Further, Owens wrote that the legislators who enacted the law wrote that they had an interest in protecting people from "unprovoked attacks." Under the dangerous dog law, owners of dogs that are going to be declared dangerous have an opportunity to contest that by showing the dog was acting in defense of itself or a human. But dogs that have not been declared dangerous who cause a severe injury with one bite, such as Padi, have no right to contest euthanasia based on the same grounds under current law.
"The Court finds it illogical and inconsistent that an owner of a dog facing a dangerous dog investigation and classification under (the dangerous dog law) may assert certain defenses such as provocation, defense of a family member or person from an unjustified attack, but an owner of a dog subjected to the provisions of (the severe dog bite statute) enjoys no such defenses, notwithstanding the statute's constitutional validity, to prevent that statutory mandated execution of their dog," Owens wrote.
Owens' decision does not change the law for the state, only in the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties.
Robert Eschenfelder, chief assistant county attorney, directed Robert Smith, the county's public safety director who oversees animal services, on Thursday to close the Padi case.
"Please instruct the Animal Services staff to no longer enforce the statute, and to close any pending case files in which the statute has been cited as having been violated," Eschenfelder said in an email.
Gartenberg said he is ecstatic and relieved about the news, especially because they got the ruling before Christmas and know they won't have to worry about Padi anymore.
"I had to believe in my heart that this was going to end well for Padi," Gartenberg told the Herald on Thursday. "But until you get that final ruling, you don't know."
Gartenberg described the whole process as a "nightmare," starting with officials seizing Padi in the beginning of June and asking him to sign paperwork authorizing them to euthanize his dog. For three months, Gartenberg had to visit Padi at Animal Services in Palmetto, driving 20 minutes from his office to spend 15 minutes with Padi and driving 20 minutes back. He said he postponed surgeries, worked late and worried constantly.
Now Gartenberg said Padi will keep coming to the clinic with him, but he won't let the dog roam around freely like he used to. He doesn't want to risk another incident.
"Believe it or not, he was a comfort to a lot of dogs that were nervous about coming to a vet's office. They'd have to be dragged across the parking lot, they'd put on the brakes at the front door there, and when they open the door and there's a dog there wagging his tail, all happy, it's a comfort to them," Gartenberg said. "So in a sense, we're losing that."
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, sponsored legislation after the Padi case to change the severe dog bite law. Under the bill's language, owners of dogs that cause severe injuries will have a hearing to discuss the circumstances of the bite, and in cases of provocation or defense of humans, the dog would not be euthanized. It has received unanimous support from two committees so far, and the Senate version received unanimous support from one committee.
"This shows the importance of this legislation. Several courts have declared this unconstitutional," Steube said. "It's important to have a new law so in cases like Padi we can have consistency throughout the state."
Steube's bill would change the law throughout the state.
"It hasn't gotten a single 'no' in any committee," Steube said.
After seeing on Bradenton.com that the ruling had been made, Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she took a moment during Thursday's Port Authority meeting to announce the news.
"The people there were very happy to hear the results," Whitmore said Thursday afternoon. "Common sense prevailed today. This is another county in the state of Florida that determined state law is unconstitutional."
When Whitmore and other commissioners travel to Tallahassee in January, she said Owens' ruling will give them "more teeth on (House Bill) 91."
"We are ahead of many counties in the state of Florida for animal rights," Whitmore said. "It's a good thing, and this will help our case in Tallahassee."
The parents of the 4-year-old child who was bitten have filed suit against Gartenberg for damages associated with the bite. Gartenberg said he couldn't comment on that case.
-- Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, contributed to this story.