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"Here's a typical scenario," Bancroft continues. "Someone calls us up extremely pissed off because they've got a notice in the mail saying they're either going to get fined or have been fined because they don't have a new rabies tag. They've had the shot for the dog but they haven't paid the $25 for the tag. They call up livid and scream. They think we've turned them in to the county. If you're a couple months late, they'll really start harassing you." While Bancroft declines to discuss any specific cases, citing client confidentiality, she says she knows people who also have been fined hundreds of dollars and have had liens put on their houses.
"It is a little absurd," concurs North Bay Village vet Dr. Stephen Brown. "We've had a lot of clients who've had this happen to them. As soon as they get the fine, they rush in to get the vaccination taken care of. The problem is, they think once they get the vaccination, that's it. The fine is still there."
Given Miami's proximity to the Everglades, which is home to many rabies-carrying animals, annual rabies shots for dogs are indispensable, Brown stresses. "I can agree with that totally," he says. But he also notes that the county, perhaps fixating on the bottom line, is not inclined toward compassion and understanding.
"I had one client who happened to be out of town for a long period when it came time to get her dogs vaccinated, and as soon as she got back, she found all these notices of fines," says the vet. "She immediately had her dogs vaccinated but refused to pay the fines. So they put a lien on her property. I talked to someone at Animal Control and said, 'Look, I'm not making any excuses for her, but be reasonable.'" According to Brown, his client was finally let go with a stern warning: Don't ever let this happen again.
According to Ochmanski, matters such as these used to be treated as criminal misdemeanors. But in order to keep the courts clear, county commissioners years ago passed an ordinance making these and other offenses civil matters. As such, they can be appealed to a so-called hearing officer, and if that fails to resolve them, they can be taken to court. But to Ochmanski's knowledge, few cases have ever gotten that far.
"What we're looking to do is not necessarily recover the full value [of the lien]," he says. "We do reduce lien amounts." All the county really wants, Ochmanski insists, is for the original delinquent "base fine" to be paid.
According to a recent state court decision, though, the county's method of fine collection may be improper. Florida's constitution states that a citizen's homestead property is exempt from the levy of creditors, except for taxes and assessments. Two years ago, ruling on the case of Demura v. County of Volusia, Florida's Court of Appeals for the Fifth District not only found that a "code enforcement fine" is not a tax or an assessment, but also held that it is unlawful to use such a lien as a foreclosure tool.
"A basic principle of Demura is that involuntary liens, except for taxes and assessments, do not constitute liens on homestead property," says Howard Cauvel, the Deland-based attorney who won the Demura case. "What [Dade] County is doing, frankly, is rattling a saber to try to get the money when they don't have a real claim against the property."
It appears that Dade is unique in this respect; most other jurisdictions, Broward included, still treat animal code violations as criminal misdemeanor infractions and don't use the lien as a weapon. But Broward also differs from Dade in two other respects. There, rabies tag fees cost twenty dollars (ten for spayed and neutered dogs). Dade gives only a $2.50 discount for altering a pet. "That doesn't give people that much of an incentive to spay or neuter, which ends up putting more strays on the streets," comments veterinarian Dr. Catherine Bancroft.
But the biggest difference between the two counties is that Broward law requires cat owners to have their felines vaccinated and tagged, too. Though cats can carry rabies, Dade's cat owners aren't required to vaccinate or pay the county for a license. In other words, dog owners subsidize animal-control services in Dade County. (This seems to suit cat people just fine: The last time it was proposed that the Metro Commission even consider a licensing regulation, the idea was killed amid a flurry of threats and petitions.)
As for Randy Natalino, he and his wife currently own three dogs, all of which, he says, are up-to-date on their vaccinations.