MANATEE -- State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed legislation Friday to change a state law that could require the death of Padi, a 4-year-old Labrador who bit off part of a child's ear in June in Bradenton.
The statute now says any dog causing severe injury to a person, which includes injuries resulting in stitches, reconstructive surgery or death, has to be euthanized . No exceptions are offered.
Steube's bill would allow exceptions if the person injured was unlawfully on the property or abusing the dog or its owner or the dog was defending a human. If those exceptions apply, a hearing officer could declare the dog dangerous dog and return it to the owner or return it to the owner without restrictions, rather than having it euthanized. Those exceptions would not apply if a death occurred.
"I think it's very important to have due process here," Steube said. "It shouldn't be black and white. ... and I don't think that was the intent of the Legislature when this law was enacted."
On June 4, Manatee County Animal Services took Padi
into custody for a dangerous dog investigation after an incident at Pet Clinic, 714 60th St. Court E., Bradenton, when the veterinary clinic owner's dog bit a child's left ear when a babysitter was taking care of the child, according to the incident report.
Accounts agree the child was in owner Paul Gartenberg's private office throwing toys at Padi, which was under Gartenberg's desk, but differ on whether the babysitter and Gartenberg's daughter were in the room with the child when he was bitten. Accounts also differ on whether the child simply bent over to pick up a toy by the desk when Padi bit him, or if the child lunged at Padi to get him out from under the desk.
Chief Assistant County Attorney Robert Eschenfelder and Gartenberg's attorney, Charles Britt, filed a joint motion Aug. 14 asking the circuit court to intervene and rule on the constitutionality of the state law. Judge Andrew Owens in Sarasota took over the case Tuesday, and officials have said a decision could take several weeks or months.
If Owens rules the statute unconstitutional, Padi would be released and the case would be closed.
If Owens upholds the law, Gartenberg could either return Padi's case to the hearing process or appeal to the Second District Court of Appeal. Eschenfelder said the county would not appeal if the law is ruled unconstitutional.
Eschenfelder said even if Steube's bill passes, it will not affect Padi's case.
"The judge will rule on the law in place as of the date the bite occurred," he said. "The Legislature will be looking to change state policy to make the law, in Manatee County's and the Volusia County judge's opinion, more constitutional."
Even though Padi's case would not be affected, Steube said changes to the law are important for future cases around the state. Counties have had issues with the clarity of the law before.
"This isn't the first county that this has been an issue with," Steube said. "But this is the first case widely publicized that has gotten this kind of attention."
There was a case similar to Padi's in 1999 in Volusia County, when a person entered a property without knocking after being warned by the owner not to do so because of a dog on premises would attack. The dog bit the man on the leg multiple times and the dog was set to be euthanized.
The Seventh Judicial Circuit Court ruled the law was unconstitutional in that case because it mandated death of the dog, "regardless of the circumstances that led to the injury," and thus was a violation of due process. The dog was returned to his owner.
The owner of the dog in that case argued exceptions under the dangerous dog statute could be applied to the severe dog bite statute, which supporters of Padi in Manatee County have also argued. The Volusia County Court said that was not a valid argument in that case.
The bill was filed for the 2016 session, which begins in January. The proposed legislation is effective date July 1.
The original state law adopted in 1990 has been amended twice, most recently in 1994. Language saying dogs causing severe injury "shall be immediately confiscated ... and thereafter destroyed in an expeditious and humane manner," has remained the same.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby