Orange County would have one of the toughest vicious-dog laws in the country if the Board of Supervisors approves a proposal it will consider later this month.
A violation of the law would be a criminal misdemeanor with a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. An owner of a dog designated as vicious would be required to carry a $100,000 insurance policy or post a $100,000 bond to cover claims by anyone injured or killed by the animal.
Currently, the punishment for the owner of a dog that menaces people is typically a small fine. There are no requirements for dog owners to have liability insurance or post bonds.
The proposed revisions seek to clearly define a vicious dog. Once a dog is identified as vicious, it would have to be penned and registered with the Animal Control Department.
Among other definitions, a dog would be considered vicious if twice within one year it bit or attempted to bite a person or "chased or approached a person upon the streets, sidewalks or any public or private property in an apparent attitude of attack."
"I've looked at a lot of these ordinances from all over as they are being passed, and we would rank way up there nationally for one of the strongest," said Leonard Liberio, director of animal control for the county.
Kurt Lapham, a field officer of the West Coast regional office of the Humane Society of the United States who has reviewed the proposed revisions, said some aspects of them are "very strong."
The revisions, if approved, would go into effect in the county's 17 cities that have full animal control services contracts with the county and in all unincorporated areas.
Most of the changes were recommended in September by the county Health Care Agency after a spate of attacks by pit bullterriers on humans in Orange County and elsewhere. Some of the attacks have left people seriously maimed.
The revisions were championed by Shirley Carey of Huntington Beach and her neighbors on Brookhurst Street who have prodded officials since last May.
Carey said Thursday that her involvement began after several pit bulls in her neighborhood made life there miserable.
"They chased people, and they had us literally hostage in our houses," Carey said.
She and her neighbors formed Concerned Citizens for Dog Law Revision after "we went through sheer hell" trying to get something done.
Although pit bull attacks helped prompt county officials to action, they noted that the existing ordinance and any revisions to it would apply to any breed.
In Orange County last year, 3,793 bites by dogs of almost every breed were reported to county officials. The number was slightly lower than the year before.
Pit bull attacks have gained the most widespread public attention because of the severity of the injuries the strong-jawed animals sometimes inflict.
In one of the more publicized local incidents, Orange County Animal Control Sgt. Kerrie Morgan lost a finger in 1986 when she was mauled by a 100-pound pit bull that earlier had attacked a baby and a United Parcel Service driver.
This week, the last of three settlements of lawsuits resulting from that attack was announced. Morgan will get a total of $300,000.
The proposed changes in county law would shorten the appeal process open to the owner of a dog designated as vicious and would define a vicious dog as one that:
- Causes serious injury or death to a person or to a domestic animal without provocation.
- Is owned or harbored solely for the purpose of fighting or is trained for fighting.
- Has twice within one year bitten or attempted to bite a person or "chased or approached a person upon the streets, sidewalks or any public or private property in an apparent attitude of attack."
The current ordinance defines a vicious dog "vaguely" as one with a "propensity to attack," said Deputy County Counsel Thomas F. Morse.
The proposed changes are scheduled to be discussed by the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday at their regular meeting. The county counsel has asked that they be put to a vote the following week.