Clay's vicious dog ordinance is unconstitutional, judge rules

By Kelsey Stein

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The city of Clay's ordinance regulating vicious and dangerous dogs is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced as written, a Jefferson County judge ruled Friday.

A lawsuit, filed in July 2013 on behalf of Mary and Stephen Schreiner, challenges the ordinance, which was passed in June 2013 but suspended as attorneys sought to resolve the issue.

A bench trial was held last week before Jefferson County Circuit Judge Joseph Boohaker. Jim Ward, Tommy Spina and Rod Giddens represented the Schreiners. Clay City Attorney Alan Summers argued in defense of the ordinance.

In an order filed Friday afternoon, Boohaker wrote that the ordinance restricted the rights of dog owners without evidence of harm to Clay residents.

The ordinance, as written, would prevent Clay residents from adopting pit bulls, but those who already own one are exempt if they register the dog with the city.

"My response is elation for my clients and elation for people who live in Clay who own the type of dogs covered," Ward said. "I'm hopeful that cities that have breed specific legislation will pay attention to what Judge Boohaker ruled and pass different ordinances."

The court's findings do not prevent city officials from writing an ordinance that passes constitutional muster and furthers the health and safety of residents, he wrote.

For example, unincorporated Madison County regulates ownership of vicious and dangerous dogs with an ordinance that fulfills constitutional requirements and is not breed specific, Boohaker noted.

The Schreiners' goal was for the ordinance, as written, to be declared unconstitutional. If Clay officials want to regulate animals, Ward said, it ideally would be done with a law that is reasonable, comprehensive and not in violation of residents' rights.

"I would hope that the city of Clay's leadership, instead of just drafting something and saying 'Here it is,' would engage in some meaningful dialogue," Ward said.

Efforts to reach Clay's city attorney were not immediately successful Friday, but in court documents Summers argued that although no pit bull attacks were recorded before the ordinance was passed last year, it was a preemptive measure to maintain public safety. He also argued that dog ownership is not a fundamental right.

In a brief filed on behalf of the Schreiners, Ward wrote that the ordinance was "vague, ambiguous and subject to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement."

In March, Clay passed a leash ordinance that requires many animals, including dogs, to be vaccinated and leashed. Owners can be fined if they violate the ordinance.

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