As it stands now, animal control enforcement in Winnebago County is made up of a system that treats accusations like facts, writes citations without investigation, and prosecutes with no evidence outside of an accuser’s statements, and some believe that needs to change.
I know because I went through it because of an incident involving my own dog, and in response, I am working with Rep. John Cabello (R-Machesney Park) to change state law to prevent other dog owners from going through what I experienced.
It involves ‘Bowa’, a dog I rescued from a local animal shelter on my birthday in 2015. As for his breed … I tell people he runs like a Shepherd, swims like a Lab, and sheds like a Huskie … and last year, Bowa got into a little bit of trouble that improbably landed me in the courthouse.
It all started at my house last January on a cold winter’s morning. It was dark outside, and Bowa wanted to go out, so I put on his leash and opened the front door. Little did I know that there was a man with his dog out in the darkness at my mailbox. I didn’t see him, but Bowa did, and tugged so hard at the leash that it slipped out of my hands. The two dogs scuffled for a few seconds in the ditch next to my mailbox until I could regrab Bowa’s leash and get him back under control.
Neither dog was injured, but the owner of the other dog issued a complaint to animal control anyway, and I was cited for ‘animal at large’. A dog on a leash in his own front yard who escapes briefly from his owner for just seconds. Does that sound like ‘running at large’ to you?
And then in March, that same person (who we have chosen not to name in this story) filed a second complaint. This time, he alleged that Bowa was loose and confronted him and his dog in the middle of the street in front of my house while a man watched through a window and did not come out to offer any assistance before my dog ran away.
My response was that the incident never happened, and yet despite my denial and the fact there was no evidence to substantiate the complaint, I was cited again anyway. When I asked the Winnebago County Animal Control Officer what evidence he had that the encounter did happen, his reply was, “I’m not allowed to investigate.”
Think about that for a second. An officer of the law empowered to issue citations which can carry hefty fines and worse saying he has no power to investigate whether the allegations which produced the citation are actually true.
Winnebago County Board Member Eli Nicolosi says the Animal Control Officer’s comment was inaccurate. “I have found that they are supposed to investigate.” Nicolosi, who sits on the Public Safety Committee which has oversight over Animal Control, says that if Animal Control Officers are not conducting investigations before issuing citations, they are not doing their job. “I think that’s part of their jobs,” he tells me. “In fact I know that’s a part of their jobs, so they are supposed to be doing that”
But in my case, they did not. And because there was a second complaint, albeit both by the same person, I would now have to defend Bowa against being declared a dangerous dog as well.
The dangerous dog hearing happened at the Winnebago County Animal Shelter. I was not allowed to take video of the hearing, but could record audio, where an official with Animal Services readily admitted there was no evidence of a dangerous dog violation. “I didn’t see any proof on the accusing side that would indicate that the event even really happened…”, he candidly told me. Afterward, I was told to expect a decision in writing
“That seems very very wrong,” says Cabello. The Rockford Police Detective currently on leave is also a State Representative who reviewed my case and found it lacking, especially because no investigation was conducted before the citations were issued. “So an investigation is an important path to determining the truth?”, I asked him. “Yes … it’s the only path,” was his response.
He believes that allowing any public official to cite someone based on a citizen complaint alone leaves the system open to abuses. Since a dangerous or vicious dog charge is a violation of state law, Rep. Cabello has introduced HB638 … or ‘Bowa’s Law’. Modeled after a law in California, it deletes language in current Illinois law that allows a vicious dog prosecution to be conducted based on a citizen’s complaint alone. Rather, it mandates that an investigation be done to determine whether there is ‘probable cause’ to believe that the dog is indeed dangerous or vicious. Cabello tells me mandating an investigation is an important protection for dog owners from what could be petty or vindictive claims.
I asked him, “They (Animal Control Officers) are given this power. Shouldn’t that at least come with the responsibility if the claim is completely denied and there is not evidence to at least investigate?”
“I would say absolutely,” was his response. “We can’t use our court system as a means of getting even with somebody.”
And County Board Member Nicolosi adds that an investigation is not just important to the integrity of the process, but helps prevent wasting valuable government resources. “It was a huge waste of time for the taxpayers,” he concluded. “A huge waste of time for you. Waste of time for the State’s Attorney’s Office. It was a waste of time for the judges. So these things kind of trickle down and slow down the system”
But there is one possibly valid reason why Winnebago County Animal Control Officers don’t investigate before issuing citations. According to the Winnebago County State’s Attorney, they really don’t have to. “(That’s) because in many instances, the complaint that a citizen has brought forward does meet the legal requirements,” Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato says, whose office prosecuted my case. “It’s not going to be in all cases, but in the specific case involving you, the information provided by the citizen was sufficient to proceed with the case.”
That’s despite no pictures or video, no vet report, no witnesses, no complaints by anyone else, yet Bruscato still believes there was still sufficient evidence to prosecute my cases based on one person’s accusations. In fact, Bruscato says his office does it all the time. “How this case was conducted was absolutely sufficient. It’s how many cases of this type are conducted.”
Bruscato believes that because this was ‘preponderance of the evidence’ case … the lowest legal standard for conviction … a lower standard of investigation is appropriate to issue a citation and proceed with a prosecution. “I think conducting an investigation to that length would be a waste of taxpayer dollars potentially because of the amount of time that would be necessary to conduct that investigation,” he says.
And as for Bowa’s law, here too, Bruscato believes a citizen complaint alone should be sufficient for prosecution as a dangerous dog. “It proposes to strike the citizen’s right to bring an action under that law and I think citizens should retain that right..”
In the end, despite three court appearances by me in addition to appearing at a dangerous dog hearing, it all amounted to nothing. Even though I agreed to a continuance to accommodate the schedule of the man who made the accusations against me and my dog, he did not show up for court despite repeated reminders, and my case was dismissed.
Bowa was also declared to not be a dangerous dog due to a lack of evidence.
HB638 passed unanimously out of committee on Thursday. If you would like to express your feelings to legislators about the bill as it works through the current legislative session, contact information is provided below.
Sen. Steve Stadelman
34th District (Rockford, Machesney Park, Loves Park, northwestern Winnebago County, south Roscoe)
Sen. Dave Syverson
35th District (northern, eastern, southern Winnebago County, parts of east Rockford, Boone County including Belvidere, DeKalb County).
Sen. Tim Bivins
45th District (western Winnebago County, Stephenson County including Freeport, Jo Daviess County, Ogle County, most of Lee County, most of Carroll County)
Rep. Litesa Wallace
67th District (west Rockford, near east Rockford, southeast Rockford)
Rep. John Cabello (Bill Sponsor)
68th District (east Rockford, Loves Park, Machesney Park, south Roscoe)
Rep. Joe Sosnowski
69th District (northern, eastern and southern Winnebago County, northern and western Boone County, including Belvidere).
Rep. Brian Stewart
89th District (western Winnebago County, Stephenson County and Freeport, Jo Daviess County, most of Carroll County, northwest Ogle County).
Rep. Tom Demmer
90th District (most of Ogle County including Byron, Lee County and Dixon)