In Louisiana, someone who kills a dog cruelly and intentionally could spend up to 10 years in prison. But when a dog kills a person, the law becomes less clear.
Laws governing dog owners' responsibility sparked public discussion after 4-year-old Mia DeRouen was killed by a family-owned pit bull in March. DeRouen and her mother, Megan Touchet, 27, were sitting on the couch in their apartment watching TV when the 130-pound dog attacked the pair unprovoked, police said.
Houma Police have completed their investigation and turned over evidence to the Terrebonne Parish District Attorney's Office. District Attorney Joe Waitz said Saturday that his agency's investigation continues and that no charges have been filed against anyone, including the dog's owner, Touchet's boyfriend, Kerry Dominique.
Experts said the state could seek negligent homicide charges, though that would be ambitious because juries are often reluctant to levy harsh penalties against dog owners.
San Francisco-based attorney Kenneth Phillips, who specializes in such cases, said he would expect prosecutors to pursue a child endangerment charge. In Louisiana, a conviction on that charge carries up to 10 years in prison.
Dog bite laws across the country are variations of two general categories: The so-called “one bite” rule and “strict liability.” The one bite rule gives owners a reprieve for their dog's first attack. Strict liability punishes the owner regardless of the circumstances. The harsher the injury, the more severe the punishment.
Louisiana falls under the strict liability category. The state's dog bite statute requires prosecutors to prove the incident was one the owner could have prevented, a phrase not found in more-straightforward strict liability legislation, Phillips said.
“We're pretty well-covered. It makes sense that the owner should be responsible,” said Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana.
But the state law contains loopholes that make it hard to prosecute fatal animal attacks, Phillips said.
Phillips, whose website, www.dogbitelaw.com, includes legal information about such issues across the country, has tried several cases in Louisiana.
In all dog bite cases, the primary issue is whether the owner should have known the dog had a vicious temperament toward people, he said.
“If that knowledge can be proved, then they can also prove that there was some negligence in allowing the dog to encounter the victim,” Phillips said.
A secondary issue is the circumstances that allowed the victim to encounter the animal prior to the mauling.
“The state can look at this and say, 'What on Earth was going on there? Why did they allow pit bulls to be in contact with the kid in a manner that we know couldn't be controlled?' It's not like the dogs were in one room and the child in another, it's not like the dogs had muzzles, it's not like the dogs were placed in cages when they were in the house,” Phillips said.
What complicates the DeRouen case is that the parents and the state have different interests, Phillips said.
“Usually the parents would want the most severe punishment for somebody who hurt their child. In this case, the parents went out and got themselves two pit bulls and left them in the house in an environment they controlled,” Phillips said. “It's a different situation.”
The attack could have happened for a number of reasons, said Chackbay Veterinarian Allaine Lafaso, who runs the Acadian Animal Hospital. Random acts of aggression can be caused by hormonal charges when male dogs that haven't been neutered are around females dogs in heat.
Another possibility is territorial aggression, triggered when someone encroaches upon a space the animal is protecting. Fear and pain could also cause a dog to act violently.
Regardless, owners have a role, she said.
“It's incumbent of all owners to be responsible for their pets' actions,” Lafaso said.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Phillips cites two cases that showcase the contrasting viewpoints on owner responsibility.
In 2001, San Francisco lacrosse coach Diane Whipple was killed by two presa canarios.
Owners Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous animal that killed a human being, a felony. Knoller was also convicted of second-degree murder.
Both were sentenced to four years in prison on the first two charges. After a series of appeals, Knoller also received 15 years to life for the murder conviction. During sentencing, the judge said Knoller did almost nothing while her dogs were fatally mauling her neighbor.
In 2005, five pit bull-rottweiler mixes belonging to Jose Hernandez escaped their pen and killed 76-year-old Lillian Stiles. Stiles was mutilated to the point where her daughter, Marilyn Shoemaker, couldn't recognize her.
At the time, Texas didn't have legislation placing a criminal penalty on negligence by pet owners. Hernandez claimed he didn't know the dogs had gotten out and didn't know they could be vicious. He was subsequently acquitted.
“These two cases are a great contrast regarding the mindset of jurors,” Phillips said.
The not-guilty verdict sparked local outrage, leading to the creation of Lillian's Law, which includes the harshest criminal penalties in the country for dog owners.
Nonetheless, Phillips said, even that law includes a loophole that frees owners of responsibility if a court determines they had no prior knowledge that the dog was vicious.
Phillips said he favors creation of state or local laws that label specific breeds “vicious” and hold their owners more accountable. The label would apply to breeds with a documented pattern of violence, such as pit bulls, rottweilers, presa canarios or dogo Argentinos.
Owners of “non-vicious” breeds should also be somewhat liable for their dogs' first attack; Phillips suggests a fine in criminal court would be sufficient.
Whatever the outcome, the fatal attack in Houma has sparked discussion among residents, animal advocates and government officials, Lafaso said. Parish council members in both Lafourche and Terrebonne are working on pet legislation, though neither proposal is breed specific or deals with fatal animal attacks.
“Hopefully,” Lafaso said, “we can bring about some change, and we can prevent situations.”