Dog unlicensed? Washtenaw County may switch to civil infraction fines for minor violations
Conversations regarding Washtenaw County’s animal control policy have brought a long-discussed civil infraction ordinance back to the forefront for county government.
Supporters see civil fines as a better way to punish minor offenses — such as unlicensed dogs or violating soil erosion codes at construction sites — than pursuing misdemeanor rulings in court.
The city of Ann Arbor and the county have their own civil infractions ordinances covering things like tickets given for driving with a tail light that’s out. But when it comes to some Washtenaw County ordinances, punishments for minor violations often lead to court proceedings.
Take not getting a license for your dog in most of Washtenaw County. Should you be found in violation, it's a misdemeanor offense.
"There seems to be a cultural reluctance to put someone at risk of jail time over such a minor offense," said Conan Smith, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, in an email.
The county has never enacted an ordinance to allow civil infractions to be identified and prosecuted. Should they enact one, some punishments could be resolved with a fine instead of a misdemeanor offense, which appears on a permanent record.
Civil infractions would “remove the stigma” of violating certain ordinances, said Curtis Hedger, corporation counsel for Washtenaw County, as violators would simply have to pay a fine and not be deemed a criminal.
Members of the county's animal control policy task force discussed ways to enforce dog license violations at a meeting this month, including county Treasurer Catherine McClary, Sheriff Jerry Clayton and Hedger.
A resolution concerning civil infraction ordinances will likely be on the board’s agenda this fall, Smith said.
County officials know that a large percentage of dog owners don't regularly license their pets, Smith said. For a neutered dog, licenses cost $12 for one year or $36 for a three-year license. Applications can be found online.
Making it a civil infraction for pet owners who have not licensed their dog would help the county enforce the license ordinance in a faster, more effective way, supporters say.
McClary said there’s a misconception about the purpose for dog licenses and associated fees.
“People believe that the only reason people need to license their dog is so government can make money,” McClary said, adding that the county does not make a profit off of dog license fees.
McClary said dog licenses are a way to help lost dogs find their way home and to indicate whether the animal has had its rabies shot -- a key public health issue.
The county is also responsible for holding unlicensed dogs for four business days as a result of the Dog Law of 1919, despite lacking a revenue stream to cover those costs. Smith said that any additional, increased revenues from dog licenses could help offset the cost of housing unlicensed dogs.
McClary has said she wants to perform a dog census in 2013 to see how many dog owners are licensing their pets.
Municipalities that have passed their own ordinances concerning dog licensing — Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township — would be separate from any action the county may take.
Animal control isn't the only area where officials are interested in implementing a countywide civil infractions ordinance.
Dick Fleece, deputy director for Washtenaw County Public Health, said the civil infractions ordinance is something that’s been discussed for the past decade.
“It allows civil fines instead of going after someone with a criminal violation punishable by time in jail,” Fleece said.
Because the department also oversees the building inspections department, civil fines could easily be used to confront violations to construction codes instead of court time, Fleece said.
For the water resources department, enforcing soil erosion ordinances on construction sites is also something that could fall under a civil fine.
Enforcing ordinance violations with civil infractions would still require some court time, as individuals would still be able to contest citations through the 14-A District Court.
The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners would have to approve a resolution allowing civil infractions. Individual county departments would then be able to determine which of its ordinances should be amended to change certain penalties from misdemeanors to civil infractions.