Owners in the Doghouse

Janice Wooldridge of Modesto is pictured with her dog Cookie in her front yard on Bandera Lane. The Chinese Crested dog got out of the yard and resulted in an expensive ticket for license and leash violations. Modesto Bee/ Joan Barnett Lee
Janice Wooldridge of Modesto is pictured with her dog Cookie in her front yard on Bandera Lane. The Chinese Crested dog got out of the yard and resulted in an expensive ticket for license and leash violations. Modesto Bee/ Joan Barnett Lee Modesto Bee

Janice Wooldridge's furless show dog slipped through her brown picket fence just long enough to nab her family a hairy fine.

Cookie the Chinese crested met up with a wandering Chihuahua on a February day, drawing a Modesto police animal control officer to the scene.

By the time the officer left, Wooldridge's mother received a $600 ticket -- $300 for having three dogs without licenses, a $100 fine for letting the Chinese crested loose without a leash, a $100 fine for Cookie's trespassing in a neighbor's yard and an additional $100 penalty for keeping one more canine than the city allows.

Wooldridge, 40, is paying the bill in $75 installments, with the last one due next month.

"We knew we were going to get a fine," said Wooldridge's mother, Dorothy Thomason, 60, whose name was on the citation. "We didn't have a problem with that. It's just that it was so hefty."

Not only was the fine expensive, it was the result of a policy the city has determined to be incorrect.

Thomason was one of more than 100 Modestans inaccurately billed for multiple animal code violations on one ticket this year, according to documents The Bee obtained through two California Public Records Act requests.

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood put an end to that policy this summer after a review of Modesto's municipal code. She found the code allows only one penalty per citation, not a bundling of violations on a single ticket.

As a result, Wood reduced certain citations and dismissed others that she determined could not be prosecuted under the municipal code.

People who have paid their fines cannot appeal them now, Wood said.

Officers could have written separate tickets for multiple violations from one incident, but Wood's findings have prompted City Council members to ask whether it's appropriate to levy such heavy penalties on lightweight infractions.

"This is what public service is supposed to do," said Wood, who joined the city from Sacramento in June 2006. "We're supposed to look at things and determine are we all doing our jobs?"

Collectively, Modestans have been billed about $48,000 through September this year on the aggregated tickets, according to Finance Department records. That money goes to Modesto's general fund, not directly to the Police Department.

Under the municipal code, animal owners can be fined $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second and $500 for a third. Thomason's ticket would have been $100.

Stanislaus County, by contrast, allows multiple violations to go on a single citation, but it caps total fines at $300, according to the county code.

A handful of serious infractions

Many Modesto violations were similar to Thomason's case: A dog escaped from a back yard, someone called an animal control officer and a resident wound up with hundreds of dollars in penalties for basic infractions such as not having a pet license or not keeping a dog on a leash.

A handful of the most serious infractions punished dog owners whose pets roamed neighborhoods for hours, charging people and attacking other animals, according to police reports.

Timma Dodson of Gulfstream Drive, in central Modesto, received the most expensive animal control ticket of the past year -- $2,100 for seven counts of dog viciousness, seven counts of trespassing and several other charges. The Bee could not reach her for comment. Two of her pit bulls allegedly chased her neighbors March 11.

One $900 citation resulted from a Christmas Day incident in which a pit bull allegedly killed a Chihuahua that was playing with children on Colfax Avenue near El Vista Elementary School. Two pit bulls were roving the street that day; a city animal control officer had to shoot one of them to subdue it, police spokesman Sgt. Craig Gundlach said.

Wood and Assistant Police Chief Mike Harden said extreme cases of canine viciousness might be handled in criminal court in the future rather than the past practice of fining owners with administrative citations, such as the one Thomason was given.

"We were using the administrative citation process too often," Harden said. "Repeat visits, vicious dogs, perhaps we need to go right to Superior Court for those."

The practice of stacking multiple violations on a single ticket dates back years for the Police Department and was cleared by Wood's predecessors, officials said.

Council to look at updating code

Wood said the city uses administrative citations to encourage people to comply with the municipal code, and because they can be resolved more quickly than taking someone to court on a criminal charge.

Prosecuting serious animal control offenses in court could split those crimes from lesser infractions, such as Thomason's.

"If a senior citizen had a little tiny dog that got out and ended up with a $600 fine, that's past being reasonable," Councilman Will O'Bryant said. "That's crazy and that will not continue to happen."

O'Bryant leads the council's Safety and Communities Committee, which will get the first look at municipal code updates that could change the way the department writes animal control citations.

Wood and Harden said they will ask that committee in December whether the city should return to its previous policy of aggregating violations on a single ticket.

Councilwoman Janice Keating said she'd want to see a policy that draws a clear distinction between vicious dogs and minor infractions.

"I don't think that as a city we want to represent that we find opportunity in the misfortune of pet owners that have created a small nuisance, but the results are really no more harm to anything but their fence or a plant they dug up to get out," she said.

Keating was dismayed to hear about the expensive penalties given residents, and to learn that many of them had to address minor infractions in Superior Court.

"I was in there with a bunch of criminals," said John Ertel, 46, whose dog, Flipper, netted him a $400 penalty when a gardener left a gate open at his Ardmore Avenue home in central Modesto.

Thomason gave away her fam-ily's German shepherd to comply with the city's two-dog limit by her court date in May.

Wooldridge got licenses for her other pets -- $12 for her neutered mutt and $100 for the unneutered Chinese crested.

"By the time we got to court, everything was fine," Thomason said from her home on Bandera Lane, in east Modesto.

$1,400 penalty cut to $100

Some people with expensive tickets, such as Jacquez Armstrong, got their penalties reduced. He was fined $1,400 when his dogs ran loose near Standiford Avenue on March 11, allegedly charging his neighbors. Armstrong contested the pen-alty and it was reduced to $100.

Michelle Taylor's $500 ticket for leash and license violations in connection with her three dogs was dismissed.

"I can't afford to pay this," Taylor, 39, remembered thinking when she saw the fine.

Others had less luck changing their citations.

Justina Solis, 33, owes $2,400 on two tickets she received late last year when her pit bulls escaped from her back yard in north Modesto. She has six children ages 7 to 16, and said she can't afford to pay the fines.

Solis said she called the city about them, but didn't get a response. She received an order to go to court about the fines and thought, "Wow, I'm going to jail for a dog."

Her case remains unresolved.

Ertel, owner of a travel agency, thought he got a deal when he was fined after Flipper ran out of his back yard and allegedly bit another dog. Ertel was skeptical that Flipper, who he joked is a million-dollar dog because of her assorted medical problems, would've attacked another animal.

"The police (officer) said he could've written me up for $900, but he gave me a break because he didn't believe (a woman who was walking the other dog)," Ertel said. "It was better than $900."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.