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San Francisco Dog Court 

Due process, under the law, for every canine

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
The stories you are about to read are strange but true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

Case 1: A Radical Problem

This is the city, San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, Jan. 6. 2:05 p.m. It's cold. In City Hall Room 408 a hearing officer is working the "vicious and dangerous dog" shift. He carries a badge. His name's Herndon. He's the cop who decides if dogs are a threat. Later, he decides what to do with them. Today, he's got a case about a pit bull and a breast implant. His job? Keep a straight face.

Bill Herndon, 51, stretches his lean 6-foot frame and folds his hands behind his head. Witnesses file into the sunny courtroom. Normally, Herndon tucks his Beretta into his waistband, but in court he wears his sergeant's uniform and holsters his piece. Today, there will be 20 witnesses, maybe 30. Herndon already suspects the well-dressed couple in the back will make trouble.

For 12 years, Herndon has presided over Dog Court, San Francisco's forum for vicious and dangerous dog hearings. He knows what to expect: breathless tales of attacks and maulings; stories about big dogs, little dogs, and fugitive dogs; tales of dogs named Hitler and Saddam. He gets the occasional fistfight. Man's best friend can bring out man's basest feelings, and Herndon deals with them almost every week. There are no attorneys here to filter emotions. It's just Herndon and the dog stories, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you work at a station, you get an alarm call, a petty theft, a lot of the same old garbage," he says. "When I started doing this, I saw I could really make a difference, administer the law, administer justice, be fair to people, do what a cop is supposed to do. It's the hardest job I've had to do in the Police Department, but if I wasn't doing this, I wouldn't be here. I'd retire."

Today, for a second week running, Herndon must confront a particularly raw case, the bizarre and troubling saga of Radical Scott. Like many dogs involved in the hearings, Radical is a poorly socialized, undertrained pit bull. She's a pretty black-and-white pit. Richard Scott rescued her from the street in September. A month later, he was walking her in SOMA when she slipped her collar and attacked a small retriever. Bystanders tried to stop her. She bit one of them. Radical was placed in custody at the city shelter, pending a hearing and a behavior assessment.

What makes the case unusual is an injury the retriever's owner suffered in the struggle to break up the dogs: She ruptured a breast implant. Now the woman and her husband want to find Richard Scott and make him pay for replacing the implant. And although it's well beyond the scope of the court, they want Herndon's help. In fact, they're demanding it.

"We don't really care what you do with [the dog]," the husband shouts, stepping up to the dais that serves as the judge's bench and slamming down a folder like a cheap TV barrister. "I gotta take care of my medical bills!"

Herndon's seen a lot during 28 years on the force. He worked the SWAT detail in the 1980s, later chasing junkies and gangbangers in the Bayview. He got used to keeping extra bullets next to the loose change in his desk drawer. But he's never been yelled at in Dog Court about a fake boob. He doesn't like it. The couple is urged to leave.

"They started talking about an implant," Herndon says. "I thought they meant a microchip in the dog. Then, they told me it was a breast implant." He pauses. "No wonder the husband was so upset."

Yeah, it can get wacky in here, and at first glance, that's what Dog Court looks like -- a wacky legal outgrowth on the far liberal end of the political spectrum, where San Francisco's natural absurdities congregate. But the court is decidedly prosaic in its purpose: to safeguard the community and to protect a person from the seizure of property -- a dog -- without due process. Over the last decade, the laws of Dog Court have been tweaked, but only to give the hearing officer more flexibility in his rulings. The court remains an institution that aims to safeguard individual rights and dispense individual blame. Herndon's idea of justice coincides with this aim. Whenever possible, he hammers home the point that the court is less about dogs than people. "It's about re-educating the person," he says. "It's about individual responsibility."

But Dog Court is also, of course, about the animals, and it reflects a fundamental ideological shift in how San Franciscans, in general, have come to look at their pets. Under the law, San Franciscans who keep dogs are no longer just dog owners. They're guardians. San Franciscans no longer take a bad dog behind the woodshed and shoot him. They listen to his story and then shoot him. Or not, depending.

Legally, even in San Francisco, a dog is still personal property, not much more than a living, breathing suitcase. When Herndon declares a dog vicious and dangerous, legally he is allowed to seize it, to restrict its activities, or to order it destroyed. In concept, however, animals' rudimentary rights have been expanded in recent years to encompass the idea that every dog has its day, or, rather, gets its day, in court. When rendering his decisions on dangerous dogs, Herndon takes into account the same things he would for a human being -- situational factors, behavioral history, even feelings.

Of course, for the system to work, the dog owner has to show up in court, to accept, as Herndon puts it, personal responsibility. Radical is a threat to public safety, and Herndon must declare her vicious and dangerous. If Richard Scott doesn't appear, that decision is tantamount to a death sentence. The shelter rarely adopts out vicious and dangerous dogs, and the SPCA won't take them. Rescue organizations are swamped, and with the number of pit bulls that need help in San Francisco, Radical won't stand a chance.

About The Author

Luke O'Brien


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