After repeated attempts to force a Cocoa couple to control their pit bulls proved unsuccessful, Brevard County animal service officials will ask a judge to forbid the dog owners from owning animals.
The case is thought to be a first of its kind for Brevard and animal services officials, who said Julie and Billy Robinson's four pit bulls have terrorized their Palm Avenue neighbors since 2007. Officials said the Robinsons' long history of ignoring citations for loose dogs that have attacked other animals and humans make them unfit owners.
A trial was set for Monday in Titusville, but it was delayed late Thursday after the couple retained a lawyer who requested that the trial judge be reassigned.
Cases involving attacks usually are handled under the county's "dangerous dog" ordinance, which puts restrictions on animals -- not owners -- through measures such as citations and fines, leashing and confinement rules and extra insurance requirements. If the owner had multiple pets, the restrictions would apply only to the specific animal declared dangerous.
But according to a petition filed in 18th Judicial Circuit Court, the Robinsons since 2007 have established a pattern of "cruelty and neglect" by ignoring dozens of loose animal and other citations and by refusing to pay various fines. They also are accused of "harboring" animals that have previously been cited and of moving them out of state to avoid investigations into complaints filed against the animals.
The county is challenging the couple's ability to own animals under a state "fitness to own" law typically reserved for overt neglect or abuse cases, such as refusing to feed an animal, denying it medical treatment or by participating in a dog-fighting ring.
Defense lawyer Todd Deratany called the case a violation of the Robinsons' right to own animals and said he thinks the case is more about the county's desire to collect citation fees than about neglect.
Michael McFarland, director of Brevard County Animal Services and Enforcement, disagrees.
"The reason this is different is because there is a multiple-year history on these folks allowing their animals to be put in a position where they've had to literally be killed by a sheriff's deputy (during an attack). Their animals have been involved in harassing other people and animals. The history is not with one dog but several dogs," McFarland said.
"They have shown they are not fit to properly care for an animal in a responsible way," he said. "At this juncture, it would be the department's position that they not be allowed to own animals ever."
The move signals a "new approach" to stamping out animal neglect and abuse issues within the county, said McFarland, who moved from California to Brevard in January to run the county's long-embattled animal services department.
According to the petition, the allegations against the Robinsons' pets -- Princess, Sable, Harley and Cyrus -- date to at least July 2007, and they include roaming the neighborhood, chasing children down the street and jumping the Robinsons' front fence to attack neighbors or their pets.
On Dec. 15, 2007, the petition said, a Brevard sheriff's deputy responding to the report of a fight at the Robinsons' home shot and killed Harley when the dog ran out of the home and attacked the officer and a police dog.
In July 2008, documents said, the Robinsons were cited for resisting or interfering with an officer by taking the dog to North Carolina to avoid an investigation and confiscation for his third bite offense. Officials think the owners have been masquerading Cyrus under the name Surge since April.
The Robinsons also owe the animal services department more than $240 in boarding fees after Princess was picked up Jan. 24 for allegedly attacking a neighbor's dog so severely that the animal needed 21 stitches, the petition said. Fees continue to grow, pending a "dangerous dog" hearing.
The petition said the Robinsons have consistently denied that the dogs had been loose or claimed that neighbors were making up reports because they didn't like pit bulls.
"I think Brevard County is overstepping their boundaries in trying to violate my clients' constitutional right to own animals, and we're planning on putting forward a vigorous case in their defense," their attorney, Deratany, said. However, county officials said the alleged incidents endangered the public and amounted to a public nuisance, documents said. In addition to the citations named in the petition, Assistant County Attorney Morris Richardson said the Robinsons have been issued several others for offenses other than attacks or roaming at large.
"This is a serious issue, and we would not approach this in any light way whatsoever when we're trying to deprive someone of ownership of their pet," McFarland said.
"So we will look at cases from this point on where it looks like there is a serious neglect of ownership," he said. "We're not going to make it a project by any means, but as cases come up like this, we would want to proceed in this direction, particularly if this stands the test of the court."
Contact Summers at 242-3642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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