Gina Calogero, Esq.

Have you ever been to municipal court to fight a traffic summons, a parking ticket, or a borough ordinance for property maintenance? If so, you’d probably be surprised to learn that this court of limited jurisdiction also hears death penalty cases – involving dogs. 

New Jersey’s Vicious and Potentially Dangerous Dog Act N.J.S.A. 4:17-19 imposes the ultimate penalty of euthanasia on dogs deemed “Vicious.” What’s your idea of a vicious dog? You may think of certain breeds. Or perhaps a dog that repeatedly attacked people. Or a dog who growls and barks and scares people. It is none of those things.

For a dog to be deemed vicious, the State (that is the municipal prosecutor) must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the dog:

  1. Caused serious bodily injury to a human OR
  2. Caused death to a human AND
  3. It was an unprovoked attack.

By definition, serious bodily harm “…creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”  See N.J.S.A 2C:3-11(d).

Notice that there is no “first bite” rule. If the injury is severe enough, a dog could be euthanized as “vicious” even for the first bite. Note that there is no breed-specific delineation – in fact, it is prohibited by the law. In nearly 30 years defending dogs, I have had my share of pit bulls but also many other different breeds, including mixed breeds and purebred Dobermans, boxers, Rottweilers, and even Labrador retrievers, to name but a few.

For decades, euthanasia was the only remedy and it was mandatory. The statute was recently amended to allow the court to impose lesser penalties on dogs deemed vicious, but even with the lesser penalties as an option, one does not want to take a chance. Many of my clients hired me to appeal a bad verdict after they tried to go it alone in court, with their dog already sentenced to death. It is a lot harder to reverse the decision of a trial judge on appeal than to get it right the first time.

The law allows for negotiated settlements as well. I always try to talk to the prosecutor and the Animal Control Officer to achieve a balance between protecting public safety and achieving a result that is fair to the dog and its owner. A settlement often includes elements of the Potentially Dangerous Dog Act, the topic of a separate blog.

The takeaway is: If your dog is impounded by the Animal Control Officer for injuring a human, this is not a “DYI” situation. Give us a call at 973-744-2980 or fill out our online form so that you and your dog don’t regret the decision to not hire a lawyer.