Like many municipalities in West Virginia, Bluefield has an ordinance prohibiting any animal that is known to be “vicious, dangerous or in the habit of attacking persons.” Bluefield City Ordinance §4-49. Municipal judges are given express authority to order any such animal destroyed.
On March 6, 2013, Randall Thompson, a municipal animal control officer, received a complaint regarding dogs owned by the petitioner, Estella Robinson. During the course of Thompson’s investigation one of the dogs got loose and viciously attacked Thompson, resulting in severe injuries.
Robinson was charged with violating §4-49 and pled guilty. Thereafter, the municipal judge ordered the dog to be destroyed. Robinson appealed to the circuit court. Among other things, Robinson argued that municipal judges lack the power to order a dog’s destruction because, under West Virginia law, this power belongs exclusively to circuit judges and magistrates. The circuit court disagreed, prompting Robinson to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Do municipal judges in West Virginia ave the power to order the destruction of a dog?
This case turns on two laws regulating the destruction of animals.
Chapter 8 of the West Virginia Code governs municipalities generally. W.Va. Code 8-12-5(26) provides that municipalities have the power “[t]o regulate or prohibit the keeping of animals or fowls and to provide for the impounding, sale or destruction of animals or fouls kept contrary to law or found running at large.”
In W.Va. Code 19-20-1 et seq., the Legislature addressed the subject of vicious dogs. Of particular importance to this case is W.Va. Code 19-20-20, which authorizes the destruction of a vicious dog “[u]pon satisfactory proof before a circuit court or magistrate.”
The question facing the Supreme Court boiled down to this: how do these two laws interact?
In his opinion for a 3 to 2 majority, Justice Ketchum applied an age-old principle of statutory interpretation--i.e., that the specific controls over the general. Justice Ketchum concluded that W.Va. Code 8-12-5(26) was a general grant of power to municipalities, detailing their power to destroy any animals kept contrary to law or running at large. In W.Va. Code 19-20-20, however, the Legislature specifically addressed vicious dogs. Where the issue concerns the destruction of a dog, the Legislature specifically vested authority “with two elected judicial officials--circuit court judges and magistrates.” Because Bluefield’s ordinance conflicts with W.Va. Code 19-20-20 by vesting the power to order destruction of a dog with its non-elected municipal judge, it is void.
Justice Loughry dissented, complaining that “a vicious dog has been granted a pardon by the highest court of this state.”
In his dissent, Justice Loughry points out that W.Va. Code 8-12-5(26) is a part of Chapter 8 of the West Virginia Code, which is aptly titled “Municipal Corporations.” Through W.Va. Code 8-12-5(26), the Legislature gave municipalities broad regulatory power over all vicious animals, “whether they be pot bellied pigs, cats, ferrets, or dogs.” Accordingly, W.Va. Code 19-20-20 was supplementary, giving this same power to circuit courts and magistrates.
Justice Workman also dissented, but has not as yet filed a dissenting opinion.
This case illustrates the difficulties that can arise in statutory interpretation. It’s an easy thing to say that the specific controls of the general. However, the task of applying this interpretive tool to actual cases can prove to be nightmarish.
It is hard to gauge the actual, real world effects of the Supreme Court’s opinion. Justice Loughry worries that there may be an increase in vicious dog attacks. Only time will tell if this is true. But what we can say with certainty is that in the future it is counties, and not municipalities, that will have to do the heavy lifting when it comes to regulating vicious dogs.