Every Dog Gets its Day: SoCal Connected takes you inside L.A.’s “Animal Court”

Where do L.A.’s dogs go when they’ve been accused of behaving badly? They can find themselves quarantined in an animal shelter while their owners may find themselves ordered to appear at Los Angeles Animal Services’ administrative hearings.  

SoCal Connected’s cameras were the first allowed into the little known proceedings, which take place in a conference room at the department headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles.

For months, SoCal Connected documented hearings as owners defended their pets from claims involving everything from barking to mauling.

"Pet owners find themselves at administrative hearings by somehow violating the dangerous animals statutes relating to allowing their pet to get out and attacking or somehow aggressively going after an individual,” said Captain Troy Boswell, one of two hearing examiners with Animal Services. While dog on dog cases are the most common, Boswell has his share of barking cases. "Obviously noise is an issue for many people in the city."


When it comes to who ends up in front Boswell, size doesn’t matter.

"Little dogs can get in trouble very often. They can be called little land sharks," said Boswell. A tiny terrier can be just as difficult as a giant german shepherd.

"When they get out they are very protective just like a big dog. They have quite a complex to them so they can find themselves in trouble."

The administrative process typically begins with a knock at the door.

Owners of the accused receive a notice that a complaint has been lodged against their dog and that an investigation is underway.  L.A. Animal Control officers can make unannounced visits to inspect the dog and the premises to determine what happened. Some dogs can be ordered to stay indoors - even banned from walks - until the case is dropped or a hearing takes place, which can take up to a year.  

Pet Court
Captain Troy Boswell oversees a dog mauling case at L.A. Animal Services

In 2015, the Animal Services department adopted a new policy requiring "dangerous dog hearings" be mandatory for owners of a dog who has bitten or attacked a person or animal even if a complaint hasn’t been filed with the department. Critics say this policy is a “guilty until proven innocent” approach that can confine pets to homes for weeks or months until a hearing is held and the facts of the case are fully investigated.  

The new policy seems to have contributed to a backlog of over 350 cases. With just two officers to hear four cases a day, it can take up to a year for a hearing to be held. Department officials told SoCal Connected the change in policy is meant to ensure the public is protected from potential dog attacks.

The administrative proceedings are a legal and formal process managed by two animal hearing officers. Four cases are scheduled daily. Evidence is presented and witnesses may be called by either side to testify. Sometimes lawyers argue on behalf of clients. Often, emotions run high.

"These cases can get very heated and confrontational over this table,” said Boswell, referring to the conference room where the hearings occur.

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"We are talking about actual people being physically altered or marred for life. Not to talk about the psychological effects that a dog attack can have on a human being. It can be very dramatic in the hearings."

These hearings result with the officers making  recommendations to the department’s General Manager who makes the final decision. The parties have the right to appeal the decision to the Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commission.

A hearing can result in a number of options for the dogs and their owners. A dog can be ordered to be moved outside of the city’s limits, relinquished to Animal Services  or in rare cases, euthanized. Often a dog is returned home and the owners are required to follow a set of conditions, like installing a fence in the backyard or being muzzled on walks.

Some observers believe it is more of a "guilty until proven innocent" system because dogs can be quarantined or ordered to stay indoors until a hearing is held.

"There isn’t even a pretense of due process. It’s a really, really bad situation that needs to be fixed," said Marla Tauscher, a lawyer who specializes in animal law.

She has represented dozens of dog owners who’ve gone through the administrative hearings and appeal process. Tauscher believes the department can be overzealous in its decisions to confiscate pets. She also thinks many of the animal cases could be eliminated if the city’s leash law was better enforced.

"I think it would go a long way to getting people to be more responsible," said Tauscher.

Hearing officer Boswell also has an idea on how to cut his caseload: an apology.

"I would venture to guess that in many of our cases had one person apologized to the other party, they would not have even called our department." but, adds Boswell, "people don’t apologize and people don’t take responsibility very often."

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