Congo's Law As Introduced Would Further Endanger New Jersey Communities

Okay now I am enraged.  I just watched an interview on News 12 with Congo’s owner, Guy James and he stated that the reason why he put his dogs down is because he knows the statute and that he would not want to put his dogs or his family through this when the dogs would have to be destroyed anyway. What about his concern for his mother-in-law, a 75 year old woman who endured massive amounts puncture wounds and lacerations this past Tuesday?.  What about the safety of his family and the rest of the local community?  In a separate interview, Mr. James  stated that this time the dogs merely “jumped” on the victim when she opened the door to go outside without realizing that the dogs were outside.   In the first dog bite attack back in November 2007, thousands were in support of Congo surviving dog death row if in fact Congo was provoked by its victim.  This seemed to make perfect sense to me. The Municipal Court Judge declared Congo vicious notwithstanding the apparent fact that Congo’s attack seemed to be provoked by the actions of its victim.  This inflamed the conscious of thousands of dog and animal lovers.  So much so that rallies were organized under the theme of “save Congo”.  Additionally, over 10,000 pleas were sent to Governor Corzine to spare Congo’s life.  Then the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed the Municipal Court ruling and allowed Congo to go home.  While I do not have the transcript of the Superior Court’s decision, I assume that it was decided on the basis that the municipality failed to prove that the dog was not provoked as required by N.J.S.A. 4:19-22   Out of these highly publicized, emotionally charged events a bill was introduced in the NJ Assembly in December 2007 as No. 4597 sponsored by Assemblyman Neil Cohen with the intent of revising the vicious and potentially dangerous dog law; designated as Congo’s Law.

Of course when a highly publicized incident occurs, legislative officials often take swift action to introduce legislation that will attempt to minimize or avoid the likelihood of the same type of events occurring in the future. This undertaking may be borne out of a genuine concern for doing what an individual believes is the right thing to do or may be the result of political pressures or a combination of the two.   Unfortunately, portions of “Congo’s Law” would likely, in my humble opinion, place New Jerseyans in actual danger of additional vicious dog bite attacks while sparing the lives of dogs that have already attacked persons that resulted in serious bodily injury or even death.  Now don’t get me wrong, I want to be clear that I am a dog and animal lover. I believe wholeheartedly that animals should never be abused for purposes of someone’s warped entertainment and any individual intentionally abusing an animal should be fully prosecuted under animal cruelty laws.  However, common sense mandates that if a domestic animal attacks a human being resulting in serious bodily injury or death, now we put the risk of harming persons above the value of the animal’s life.  We cannot put the safety of our children or our loved ones at risk of physical harm in order to preserve the highest burdens of proof.  Most rational persons would agree that to grant animals the same rights as our citizens is purely absurd. Believe it or not, this in essence is what certain provisions of the Congo Law would require if enacted.  For example, under the current law if after an attack the dog is declared vicious by a municipal court judge, meaning it killed a person or caused serious bodily injury then the dog shall be destroyed in a humane manner. See N.J.S.A. 4:19-22.  The Congo law would allow the municipal judge discretion in allowing the dog to return home even if an attack occurred resulting in serious bodily injury or death and where it found that the dog is declared vicious.  Then the court would require its owner to obtain a special municipal vicious dog license, orange identification tag, a municipal registration number, and maintain liability insurance.

Now practically speaking, could you imagine a local judge deciding to allow a dog to remain in a residence on your street after it has been declared vicious by a court of law if that dog either caused serious bodily injury or death to someone?    How would you feel going for a walk with your children anywhere near that home?  Now you and your family are at risk of being attacked and ,at a minimum, have to endure the legitimate fear and anxiety of what could happen to you or your loved ones should this dog come your way.  I can tell you from my experience in representing dog attack victims that these injuries can range from bone crushing injuries, severe lacerations to deep puncture wounds and sometimes even worse, severe psychological harm or post traumatic stress syndrome known as PTSD.

Under the provisions of Congo’s law, the municipal court shall declare the dog vicious if it finds that the dog “beyond a reasonable doubt” killed or caused serious bodily injury to a person and “poses a continuing or future serious threat of serious bodily injury or death to a person.”  So in other words, the burden of proof in these proceedings will be changed to the highest burden of proof that is only used in criminal prosecutions.  Practically speaking, how can a judge determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” if the dog poses a future serious threat of serious bodily injury or death?   Yes, believe it or not these are some of the amendments that are actually in the bill.

It is the existing laws that are codified in N.J.S.A. 4:19-17. et seq. that already require certain procedures to be followed by animal control officers and municipal courts after a dog bite attack occurs in order to determine whether or not the dog shall be deemed vicious or potentially dangerous that need to be better enforced. I find that often times after a dog bite attack, the victim and the community’s right to be safe are too often overlooked and the vicious or potentially dangerous dog is returned back to the owner only to hold the community and the victim hostage. All too often, the same dog is a recidivist which results in another future attack or attacks.  Now we have created more victim’s whose attacks could have been easily prevented had the law been properly enforced.

The goal of amending the current laws to more clearly define the burden of proof by the municipal courts to demonstrate the dog wasn’t provoked makes sense however; Congo’s Law goes too far by placing future human life and liberty at risk of harm.  Maybe the only good to come out of Congo’s repeated attacks is that it will raise awareness to the public of the importance of strict enforcement of the procedural requirements by our municipal officials of the current dog bite laws.

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