Appeals court throws out Lima dog law

Lance Mihm

December 24, 2013

LIMA — The Ohio Third District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's ruling, effectively throwing out provisions from Lima's vicious dog ordinance on Monday and declaring them unconstitutional.

Lima Law Director Tony Geiger forwarded a message to city councilmen and other city officials on Monday.

“Today, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that the city's vicious dog ordinance is unconstitutional because it conflicts with state law,” Geiger wrote. “The court ruling was a split decision, two in favor and one against.”

The decision could make much of the city's code useless.

Geiger, who declined comment when contacted Tuesday, explained in the letter that it was too early to determine what steps could be taken. Lima has the opportunity to appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court or to rewrite the law to address legal issues raised by the appellate court. Geiger said he will review the various issues and later make a recommendation on how the city may proceed.

The criminal complaint was filed Nov. 19, 2012, charging Lima resident Theodore T. Stepleton, 25, 410 S. Jameson Ave., with the minor misdemeanor charge. Stepleton pleaded not guilty at his Nov. 30, 2012, arraignment in Lima Municipal Court. In the case, Stepleton was tried and found guilty of having an unconfined vicious dog on the premises.

Stepleton did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

On Jan. 3, Stepleton asked for a dismissal of the charges, requesting a hearing to rebut evidence that his dog was vicious. The magistrate in the case granted the request, but no hearing was held.

In March, the magistrate ruled there was no conflict between the city code and Ohio Revised Code, denying Stepleton's motion to dismiss the case. Stepleton filed an objection to the decision, but the municipal court overruled the objection and adopted the magistrate's decision. Finally on April 30, Stepleton withdrew his not guilty plea and entered a no contest plea to the complaint and was ordered to pay a $50 fine. Stepleton then appealed the decision to the appeals court.

In writing the opinion, Third District Court Judge Richard Rogers wrote the municipal court erred by not dismissing the case due to improper service and said the court erred in not scheduling a hearing for Stepleton to rebut the vicious dog claim. The opinion also said the municipal court should have said the city code conflicted with Ohio laws, thus it should have dismissed the case.

At issue is whether the the dog had been deemed vicious. In the final assignment of error, the appeals court determined the city rule ignored Ohio statutes.

The appeals court determined the Lima code's definition that an owner could be found guilty of failing to confine a “vicious” dog in a secured pen if “the owner of a pit bull dog whose dog has never previously injured a person or killed another dog or was restrained on three previous occasions in violation of ORC.”

In contrast, the court said the Ohio law only defines dogs that “without provocation have caused injury to a person, killed another dog or have been restrained in violation of ORC on three previous occasions as being 'dangerous' dogs.”