Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 25, 2013

Owner fights for pit bull’s life

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — Click here to see video of court hearing:

A Mercer County pit bull owner is hoping a circuit court judge will rule that a municipal court cannot order the destruction of the dog she calls “her baby.”

Estella Mae Robinson, 47, of Bluefield appeared Wednesday in Mercer County Circuit Court to appeal a city court order calling for the destruction of her pit bull. The dog, Major, has been at the Mercer County Animal Shelter since March when he bit Animal Control Officer Randall Thompson, she said.

Bluefield City Attorney Brian Cochran said the hearing before Circuit Court Judge William Sadler had nothing to do with the city’s current ban on pit bulls. The city ordered the dog to be put down before the most recent pit bull ordinance was enacted.

“The municipal court ordered a vicious pit bull to be destroyed, and the defendant has appealed the ruling to this court,” Cochran said before the hearing.

The city ruled in April that the dog had to be destroyed.

Sadler deferred making a ruling Tuesday, and said he hoped to make one within a week.

Attorney Gerald Linkous, an assistant public defender representing Robinson, argued that according to West Virginia State Code 19-20-20, only magistrates and circuit judges could order that an animal be put down.

The state code does not say Bluefield cannot have its pit bull ordinance, but it does restrict who can issue an order to destroy an animal, Linkous said. The city would need to submit such cases to magistrate court or county circuit court.

Cochran countered W.Va. Code 8-12-5 (26) does give municipalities the authority to destroy vicious dogs.

In April, Robinson pleaded guilty to harboring a vicious dog and allowing a dog to run at large, Cochran said. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but this sentence was suspended; she was ordered to pay a fine and court costs.

The city court ordered a stay on destroying the pit bull so Robinson would have 30 days to find him a home outside the city, Cochran said. She was required to get an expert’s report verifying the dog could be rehabilitated, but no report was produced.

West Virginia State Code does not allow a defendant to appeal a municipal court order if the defendant was represented by counsel at the time the order was entered, Cochran said. An appeal can be made when the municipal court lacks jurisdiction. The argument now before Judge Sadler is whether the municipal court has the authority to order a dog’s destruction.

Linkous said the city’s current vicious animal ordinance, which covers dogs and other animals, “goes too far,” and that destroying his client’s pit bull was not part of the plea agreement.  

After the hearing, Robinson said her pit bull — Major — was protective of her. She said last March Animal Control Officer Randall Thompson answered a call when her other pit bull, a year-old pup, got off its chain. Robinson said Major bit Thompson on both hands when he slipped off his chain.

Major has been held at the Mercer County Animal Shelter since March. Robinson said she has not been able to see him.

“He’s my baby,” Robinson said. “I’ve had him for five years, and I’ve had him since he was a week and a half old. My son gave him to me.”

Major, the runt of the litter, had been rejected by his mother, Robinson recalled. He is the first pit bull she has ever owned. The dog was confiscated last March after he bit Thompson. Robinson had a year-old pit bull pup that had slipped loose from its chain and was wandering around, and the animal control officer was answering a call about the pup. Major then got loose when he saw a stranger in his yard, Robinson said.

“Major’s link (chain) slipped. It was a total accident,” she said.

Robinson said Major’s birthday was Sept. 11, and she hoped to get him back by then.

“I’m hoping to get my baby back,” she said. “He’s not mean, and he’s not vicious.”

The Bluefield Board of Directors voted April 23 to ban pit bulls from the city. Residents were given 10 business days after that date to register their pit bulls with the city. As of May 6, approximately 97 pet owners had registered 133 pit bulls.

City Manager Jim Ferguson said the incident involving Major was one of approximately six incidents involving pit bulls noted prior to March along with incidents across the nation. The city board had already started discussing the possibility of banning pit bulls.

“It wasn’t the one incident,” Ferguson said of Major’s case. “The discussion had already begun.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com