Jury trial still a possibility for Lola the dog

By Gilbert Garcia

October 2, 2014 | Updated: October 2, 2014 11:05pm

County Court-at-Law Judge Tina Torres gazed at Assistant City Attorneys Sam Adams and Oliver Sutton to her left, and animal-rights lawyer Michelle Maloney to her right.

"You all are giving me a headache," Torres said with a laugh.

The judge's Thursday morning headache derived from a conflict over whether Maloney's client, the Rev. Will Rice, had a right to a jury trial in county court to decide whether Animal Care Services unfairly imposed a dangerous-dog designation on his gray and white pit bull terrier, Lola.

This case is important for two reasons: Maloney's push for a jury trial has the potential to break legal ground in dangerous-dog cases; and it illustrates the arbitrary manner in which ACS deals with some dog-bite disputes.

Rice, 43, is a mild-mannered, bespectacled, sandy-haired pastor at the University United Methodist Church. On March 28, he saw Lola wandering around in his Northwest Side neighborhood and decided to take her home.

The dog had been kept chained up by her frequently absent owner, Jamie Valdivias, and had to break the chain to escape. She was skinny and dehydrated when Rice found her.

At the time, Rice didn't know that ACS had seized Lola earlier that month, after the dog got into a fight with a beagle. When the beagle's owner tried to break up the fight, he was bitten, allegedly by Lola.

One of the oddities of the case is that ACS quarantined Lola, released her after a few days, and then, six weeks later, determined that she was a dangerous dog and needed to again be captured.

When I asked ACS Director Kathy Davis earlier this year about the decision to release a dog the department would later label dangerous, she said, "The investigation was not complete at the time Lola was released from quarantine and reclaimed by her owner."

After Rice found Lola, he contacted Valdivias, who gave the pastor permission to keep the dog.

On May 7, ACS Assistant Director Vincent Medley sent Rice a letter stating that "after careful deliberation of all the available facts," the department had designated Lola a "dangerous dog."

The designation meant that Rice had to keep the dog enclosed in a fenced area, and muzzled whenever she left the enclosure. Rice also had to post a warning sign on his property, attend a pet-ownership class, and get at least $100,000 in liability insurance.

The Texas Health and Safety Code allowed Rice 30 days to get in compliance, but ACS gave him exactly one day before animal-care officers showed up at his house with a warrant - which did not include an affidavit explaining what Lola had done - and seized the dog.

ACS ultimately returned Lola to Rice, but he decided to appeal the dangerous-dog designation.

"She shows no signs of aggression," said Rice, who brought Lola into a home that he and his wife share with their two young sons and two other dogs. "She has never snapped at me or my children. If she had, she wouldn't be at my house."

Rice added: "She's a bed hog and she has allergies. And that's the worst I can say about her."

Maloney often has been frustrated by the city's municipal-court system, which she sees as inherently biased in favor of Animal Care Services in dog-bite cases.

With this case, she hoped to avoid a municipal-court hearing and instead get a jury trial in county court, arguing that Rice was being partially deprived of his property rights. On June 13, visiting presiding County Court Judge Timothy Johnson agreed that Maloney had the right to take her appeal directly to county court, but said it should receive an administrative hearing in front of a judge, rather a jury trial.

That administrative hearing was scheduled for Thursday, but Maloney filed an 11th-hour motion for reconsideration of her jury request.

Torres seemed swayed by the fact that Maloney had paid the filing fees for a jury trial, and issued a continuance to allow the question to receive further consideration in county court.

"In our society, the right to trial by jury is the bedrock of our democracy," Torres said. The judge added that she would be following this case with great interest.

The same can be said for animal-rights activists throughout the state.

ggarcia@express-news.net