Question: What are animal control hearings?
Answer: Every county, city and town has its own local laws, called “municipal codes.” The code sections that apply specifically to animal care and ownership come under the heading “animal control.” When local officials believe a resident has violated a code section, the resident is issued a citation (aka “a ticket”), and a hearing is held to determine if a violation occurred. An animal control hearing is usually (with few exceptions) administrative, not a formal court proceeding, and determines if an animal owner* or keeper should pay a fine or be subject to a condition for violating a local law about animals.
Q: What’s their intent?
A: They have two goals. The broader is to effectively regulate local animal ownership problems at a level that state law does not normally care about or address. The more specific is to provide minimum “due process”—i.e., notice and a forum to hear a dispute—to an animal’s keeper or owner before the animal is taken away or restrained in some fashion.
Q: What sort of authority do they have and where does that authority come from?
A: Local jurisdictions have what is called “police power,” which is whatever regulatory power they need to govern their communities that a) has not already been commandeered by the state or federal governments, and b) is consistent with state and federal constitutions.
Q: Can the public learn anything from them?
A: Quite a bit. Because animal ownership is not an enumerated constitutional right, it is fair game for federal, state and local governments, and the privilege of having a dog, for instance, can be partially or entirely impaired: licenses can be required, certain behaviors can be restricted or penalized, conditions of confinement or care can be imposed, and animals can be impounded or even destroyed. An animal control hearing—while not the only opportunity to do so—is a key arena in which to challenge a dog’s seizure or imposition of a fine for barking, biting or running loose. Hearings provide a hands-on education about what it is like to live in a community and accept civic responsibilities one owes to one’s neighbors, as well as provide a wealth of information about who in a neighborhood is doing exactly what about certain dogs.
Q: Can they be used as a lever for changing public policy regarding treatment of animals?
A: The hearings themselves are not good forums to effect actual changes in law since the method by which hearing rules are propounded is legislative, and state courts supervise them. Hearings are an odd hybrid of civil and criminal proceedings. The cited owner is called a “defendant,” but unless an actual crime has been charged, they cannot be incarcerated, are subject only to fines, and enjoy none of the standard protections of rights to speedy trial or against self-incrimination. Hearings are informal arenas in which evidence and legal procedural rules do not apply, in which the standard to prove a violation is low (“preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”) and in which the hearings officer (rarely a judge and more commonly a local lawyer appointed by a council) is granted extremely broad discretion to decide what to eventually do about a dog or owner. Nevertheless, when a hearing decision is challenged—appealed or, as many jurisdictions allow, held over again in a courtroom with an actual judge—the laws on what is deemed good versus bad ownership of an animal can ultimately be drawn into sharp relief, and thus changed under the common law.
*The term “owner” is used here as the traditional designation, though it should be noted that, since 2000, over 43 U.S. cities, two state counties and the entire state of Rhode Island have enacted laws using the term “guardian” instead.