Gunner riding with Jyl Albertson on her way to the airport after she visited him in Georgia. According to the complaint, Gunner, a mixed breed dog, is over 11-years old. Jyl rescued him when he was a puppy. Gunner has “never bitten or harmed any person, threatened harm toward any person, or acted aggressively toward any person.” He had to be relocated to Georgia to avoid being impounded and killed by the Williston Police Department City Pound. Unless she prevails in her lawsuit against the City, Albertson, a Williston teacher, will no longer teach in North Dakota and will move to Georgia to live with Gunner.

Over a dozen residents and former residents of North Dakota have filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Williston for violating their constitutional rights by arbitrarily banning dogs the City claims are “pit bulls.” Some of the plaintiff’s dogs were killed, others were forced to relocate their dogs in order to avoid their killing, and still others are being threatened with fines and imprisonment and having their dogs killed.

The Williston Police Department is accused of violating 42 U.S. Code Sec. 1983. Section 1983 reads, in pertinent part, 

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State… subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…

Specifically, Plaintiffs argue that the City,

[D]eprived Plaintiffs of the comfort, companionship, and sense of security that their dogs provide them and subjected Plaintiffs to a reasonable concern that their property may be destroyed and euthanized under the Pit Bull Ban. The Pit Bull Ban has further subjected Plaintiffs to a reasonable concern that they may be charged with civil or criminal violations if they bring their dogs back to Williston and that their homes may be searched by the City or its agents.

Jyl Albertson, a local school teacher, is one of those individuals. She rescued Gunner, her 11-year-old mixed breed dog, when he was a puppy. After spending his life with her, Gunner was forced to move in with Albertson’s adult son in another state to avoid being impounded and killed by the Williston Police Department City Pound, even though Gunner has “never bitten or harmed any person, threatened harm toward any person, or acted aggressively toward any person.”

Other Plaintiffs also note that their dogs have “never bitten or harmed any person” or “acted aggressively toward any person.” One of the dogs is certified as “a Canine Good Citizen.” And DNA tests confirmed that some of the other dogs were not pit bulls, but “The City Attorney refused [to consider the DNA results] because [he falsely claimed that] animal control officers are trained [and able] to identify pit bull breeds by sight…”

The Plaintiffs argue that it is unreliable to determine if a dog is a pit bull by visual identification, that there is “no opportunity for a dog owner to challenge the determination that their dog is a ‘pit bull’ under the Ordinance” since the City Attorney refuses to accept DNA test results and other evidence, that “breed” is an unreliable predictor of dangerousness, and that people are unfairly subjected to threats of fine, arrest, and killing of their dogs based on the arbitrary determinations of individual police officers.

Moreover, the City “imposes no time limits on how long Animal Control may impound a dog before determining it to be a prohibited pit bull,” “does not contain any provision requiring the City to return impoundment fees to a prevailing owner whose dog was wrongfully impounded,” and as such, “The threat of indefinite impoundment and associated fees dissuade affected dog owners from exercising their due process rights.”

The science is on their side. Studies have shown that:

  • 50% of dogs labeled as pit bulls lack DNA breed signatures of breeds commonly classified as pit bulls;
  • Dogs labeled “pit bulls” are not more likely to bite, do not bite harder, and such bans do not result in fewer dog bites or bite-related hospitalization rates;
  • Treating them differently is very expensive for municipalities and does not yield public benefits; and,
  • Breed bans make “bad neighbors” by adding “pressure to the state’s sheltering system” because surrounding communities, rescue groups, and individuals have to take on the burden for a city’s regressive and selfish policies in order to save the lives of these dogs.

When cities pass “breed” bans, families are separated and good dogs die.

Albertson has not renewed her teaching contract and, if she loses the lawsuit, intends to relocate to Georgia to be with her dog, depriving local kids of one of their teachers. Meanwhile, an attorney for the City said that he was “made aware of the lawsuit” and that it would be reviewed, but despite not having yet reviewed it, claimed that it was without merit and the facts as presented were not accurate.

Congress enacted Section 1983 as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, largely to protect Black Americans in the South from state-sponsored lawlessness that ensued after the conclusion of the Civil War. Since then, it has been used to sue police and other government officials when they illegally harm citizens across a wide range of issues. In 2008, The No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, was the first to sue an animal shelter, under Section 1983, for revoking a rescuer’s ability to save animals because she testified before the Board of Supervisors about inhumane and abusive treatment of animals in the Los Angeles County pound. The Court ruled that the County retaliated against her in violation of her First Amendment rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances and ordered her reinstated.

The lawsuit, Suckley et al v. Williston, is here.

A copy of the complaint is here.

The Williston Herald, the local newspaper, is calling for a repeal of the ban.

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