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News Maryland Baltimore County

Balto. Co. seeks to increase animal cruelty fines, alter hearing process

A bill before the Baltimore County Council would increase fines for animal cruelty and change the way the county handles animal complaints, but a lawyer said Tuesday that the measure could be unconstitutional.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration says the legislation would make the animal hearing process more efficient and help the county recoup costs for caring for seized animals. A vote on the bill is set for Monday.

Glenn Meyer, an Owings Mills attorney who handles animal law cases, told council members at a work session that the bill violates animal owners' due-process rights. "It's my belief that the bill is unconstitutional," he said.

Meyer raised several concerns about the measure. For instance, the legislation would require people whose animals are seized to pre-pay boarding costs. Also, if a person accused of a violation fails to appear at an animal board hearing, he or she would lose the right to appeal the decision to the county's Board of Appeals. The county's animal-control laws cover issues such as leash requirements, licensing and vaccination, and proper care of pets.

County Attorney Mike Field said the pre-payment provision is modeled after laws in Montgomery County. The fees would not apply to stray animals staying at the shelter.

After the meeting, he noted that cases involving seized animals can sometimes last for more than a year. "There is a cost to that," Field said. "This is meant to recoup some of that."

The measure would increase county fines for animal cruelty from $100 to $145 for first offenses. It would also raise fines for owners of dangerous animals — animals that have attacked someone or are otherwise found to be a threat to public safety — from $500 to $1,000.

County resident Daphne Vasold said the update of county regulations should address victims of animal attacks. She said she was attacked by a dog that the animal board ultimately found not to be dangerous and had no recourse.

"The victim should also have rights," she said.

The council also heard from two former volunteers at the county animal shelter in Baldwin. One of them, Gretchen Sarkin, said animals there lack proper medical attention and clean living spaces, and complained that the bill "does nothing to address the deplorable conditions at the shelter."

The bill also would change the name of the Animal Control Division to the Animal Services Division, which county officials say better reflects the scope of its work. In October, Kamenetz said the county would build a $5 million animal shelter to replace the current one.

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