Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Court Challenge-Article 1

Controversial ban of pit bull dogs to face constitutional challenge in court
Gillian Livingston, Canadian PressPublished: Tuesday, May 09, 2006

TORONTO (CP) - Ontario's controversial pit bull ban is facing a constitutional challenge in court next week, but the province's attorney general said Tuesday he is certain the law will survive.

Michael Bryant said the law that bans the dogs and slaps violators with severe penalties, including hefty fines and jail time, was carefully crafted. "We're very confident that the bill will pass any and all constitutional scrutiny," Bryant said. "An enormous amount of work went into providing clarity to the bill and definitions. It's been described by ... one expert south of the border as the most comprehensive legislation of its kind."

Renowned lawyer Clayton Ruby will argue in court next Monday that the ban is "too vague and over-broad," and therefore unconstitutional.

Witnesses for both the defence and prosecution "agree that most pit bull dogs are kind, loving dogs that would not bite anyone," Ruby said in an interview.

"If there's a large number of dogs that don't fit within the danger, then that's over-broad legislation."

"If imprisonment is a consequence, legislatures cannot pass laws that are vague or over-broad. The law has to be certain so that each Canadian can know what they have to do in order to comply or not comply with the law."

The description of a pit bull in the legislation is also too vague and could punish some dogs and owners unnecessarily, Ruby said.

He noted that veterinarians can't easily determine if a dog is a pit bull without a full breeding history, since many dogs share the traits that characterize pit bulls: muscular bodies with broad shoulders, strong hindquarters and large heads.

The ban, part of the Dog Owners' Liability Act, came into effect last August.

It requires pit bulls to be muzzled in public, leashed and sterilized, and also bans breeding of the animals.

Owners who violate the law can be fined up to $10,000 or sentenced to up to six months in jail or both - the first time imprisonment has been included in the province's dangerous dog legislation.

If the court determines an owner has violated the law, the dog is destroyed.

Ruby is acting on behalf of Catherine Cochrane, the owner of a two-year-old pit bull mix. Cochrane announced last August that she would fight the law forcing her to muzzle her pet.
Cochrane is backed by a group of pro-dog organizations calling themselves the Banned Aid Coalition.

The difficulty in identifying pit bulls was the focus of a case in Sarnia, Ont., in which a justice of the peace wasn't convinced by a veterinarian's opinion that the dog was indeed a pit bull.
The owner of the dog was cleared of all charges - one of the first challenges of the new law.

"The first words of the judge are, 'This legislation is vague,' " Ruby said. "Well, vague is unconstitutional."

That ruling doesn't affect the government's case, Bryant said, since that was a municipal interpretation of the law, while Ruby's client is challenging the provincial law as a whole.

In a statement filed in court, Ruby argues that the government is relying on questionable data to prove that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs.

"No Canadian statistics or empirical data have been provided to show that the so-called 'pit bull' is inherently more prone to bite or attack," the statement says.

Ruby points out that a 1996 study found that pit bulls accounted for just four per cent of reported dog bites in Toronto, ranking ninth among identified breeds.

The statement also claims that dog bite statistics are unreliable because the description of the dog often comes from someone who isn't familiar with breeds and thus misidentifies it as a pit bull.

But Bryant said it's clear to him that since the law came into effect, there have been fewer attacks by pit bulls. There were several brutal attacks on people by the dogs in the years leading up to the law's passage.

"There's no question in my mind that the bill has already had a very significant effect in decreasing the number of pit bull attacks," Bryant said. "We were going through a time a couple of years ago where not a week would go by where a vicious pit bull attack was not the subject of at least a public report."


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