FORT WORTH — All people, and even some dogs, deserve a day in court.
The recent settlement of a lawsuit in Tarrant County civil court saved the lives of two pit bulls but precluded arguments about problems with Fort Worth’s dangerous dog ordinance, specifically, and appealing municipal court cases in general.
The glitch in the state law was revealed when Thomas and Rana Soluri’s dogs were declared dangerous by a Fort Worth municipal court judge in late September, and the family discovered that they had nowhere to turn to appeal that decision.
In Tarrant and other larger counties, if someone wants to appeal a municipal court ruling on such things as a dangerous dog, red-light camera tickets and other cases, they must go to a county criminal court. But those courts, by law, don’t have jurisdiction over civil cases.
In smaller counties with no such courts, appeals of dangerous dog rulings and other municipal court cases are heard at county courts of law.
Historically, municipal courts handled criminal cases, but gradually they were given some civil jurisdiction.
Other civil matters decided in municipal court include parking and red-light camera violations, which also cannot be appealed, said Fort Worth Assistant City Attorney Gerald Pruitt.
Pruitt said that legislation passed in the last session allowed animal cruelty appeals in county courts of law, but not dangerous dog rulings.
“The city’s view is that we are not against those appeals. It’s up to the Legislature to provide them. The city of Fort Worth cannot create an appellate court,” he said.
The controversy began in late August, when the Soluris’ pit bulls broke through a fence separating their back yard from that of a neighbor, Leslie Miller. Miller said she was in her back yard with her German shepherd puppy when the two dogs charged, chasing her to the back door of her house.
Miller called animal control to report the loose dogs, leading to the dogs being seized Sept. 22 and declared dangerous five days later.
Rana Soluri, along with the Lexus Project, an organization that provides legal assistance to owners of dogs deemed dangerous, sued Fort Worth and the animal control department stating that the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional because the appeals process is flawed.
A state district judge prevented the city from euthanizing the dogs, and Soluri decided to settle the lawsuit to guarantee that her dogs would not be put down. The agreement required Soluri to pay about $2,700 in boarding costs and veterinarian charges and to comply with seven conditions set by a municipal judge before her dogs could be released.
The agreement ends all the jurisdictional wrangling in the Soluri case, but the family and their attorney said they were disappointed that there would be no chance to settle what was described as a “constitutional violation.”
Donald Feare, an attorney representing an Arlington man who sued that city in hopes of overturning his dangerous dog ruling, said cities often adopt onerous ordinances that are difficult and expensive to comply with.
He said that fees and other expenses to comply with the ordinance can be excessive. For instance, in Fort Worth, the owner of a dog deemed dangerous pays a $500 annual registration fee per dog, which helps to pay for inspecting the homes to make sure owners are in compliance.
In Arlington, the fee is $50.
“Depending on events, there could be an order to euthanize a dog. The only thing that would prevent that from happening is an appeal,” Feare said.
Randy Turner, a Fort Worth attorney who specializes in animal rights issues, said legislation to fix the inconsistency will likely be filed by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, for the next legislative session.
The State Bar of Texas’ animal law section is proposing the legislation, he said.
“We currently are in a situation where, although state law allows the right of appeal, depending on which county you live in, it may be a hollow right,” Turner said.