Council takes up pet owner penalties

Dangerous dogs could send their owners to jail under a Modesto City Council proposal to ratchet up penalties for canine attacks.

It's designed to give the city's animal control officers more authority to seize vicious dogs and to put a leash on reckless owners.

"It's very important to have tools for those kinds of dogs," Councilman Will O'Bryant said. "I want something with some teeth in it."

He and his colleagues on Tuesday are scheduled to vote on the proposal to declare dog attacks a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine or time in jail.

Modesto's municipal code addresses all animal control violations with the same penalties: $100 citations.

Last year, some people whose dogs bit children or mauled other pets received multiple $100 fines on one ticket, some totaling more than $1,000, records obtained by The Bee show.

The penalties were not significantly different from those levied against a few pet owners who received tickets for keeping unlicensed dogs, or whose pets ran loose.

Questions about those penalties surfaced at last week's City Council meeting.

The council voted to allow police to cite pet owners for multiple code violations on a single ticket and to track the cost of the citations to make sure they remain reasonable.

City attorney Susana Alcala Wood halted that practice last year during a review of city ordinances. She determined the code did not allow aggregated citations.

Diana Rego, an owner of a small dog, complained to the council that she had little recourse against the owner of a pit bull that attacked her pet last year.

"This is a horrific story she's telling us and it's one we see all too often," John Bear, supervisor of the Police Department's animal control unit, told the council.

Bear has said the changes in penalties to the animal-related codes would help the city deter reckless pet owners and give officers more leeway to seize a repeatedly vicious dog.

"People should be able to feel safe," O'Bryant said. "It might not make them feel completely safe, but people need to know if they have a vicious dog they're not going to get away with anything."

The council's animal control votes are among several changes to the city code proposed by the Police Department over the past few months.

Others have included a ban on Dumpster diving and a proposal that raised penalties for drinking alcohol in city parks without a permit.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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