Williston’s breed ban is being called into question again, and it’s a hot topic throughout the town.
In March, a local woman, Jessica Burling, was arrested after her children accidentally let her dog out the door when they arrived home from school. The incident has recently gained traction on social media, with the involvement of Animal Farm Foundation, a national non-profit organization that focuses on ending dog breed restrictions and helps give dog owners who live in areas with breed specific legislation skilled legal representation.
According to the Foundation’s website, a neighbor called Williston Animal Control stating a pit bull was out chasing children. Burlington and the Foundation say that was a false claim.
When officers arrived, Luna was inside the home, and officers identified Luna as a pit bull based on their visual of the dog through the window. Officers called Burling, and told her that she would be arrested for the second offense of statute 4-89, “pit bull in the city limits.”
Animal Farm Foundation’s Executive Director, Stacey Coleman states that when Burling arrived home after agreeing to meet officers, she had put Luna in her vehicle, at which point animal control officers staking out the home called police backup, claiming Burling was “fleeing with the dog.” That led to discussion of a tampering with evidence charge, according to the Foundation, but ultimately Williston declined to make that charge. However, a viscous dog citation was added after Luna’s impoundment.
Burling says what she was actually doing was transporting her daughter to dance class, and then she planned to call officers to meet them with the dog.
Body cam footage released on social media of the encounter shows police arresting Burling. Coleman said at this time there are no charges pending against Burling, but the handling of the situation leading to the arrest, as well as after Burling’s release from jail led to the involvement of the Foundation. Donations toward Burling’s legal fees are being accepted at this time via the Animal Farm Foundation’s website.
Burling has still not been reunited with her dog, as Luna is being held as evidence, according to the Foundation. Coleman explained that Williston city ordinance states that after 10 days, an owner can get their dog back if they have paid the applicable fines and agreed to remove the dog from city limits. She said that Burling has a place out of town for Luna to go, but still has not been able to have her dog back.
It’s not the first time Williston has faced questions about its handling of pit bulls. Its ordinance banning pit bulls is facing a federal lawsuit filed by local dog owners who were accused of violating the ordinance.
The named plaintiffs in the case are Brandi Suckley, Reeann Suckley, Jill Albertson, Mathew Baumstark, Danika Owen, Lynette Cole-Perea, Manuel Perea, and Emily Holly.
Gene Summerlin, an attorney based in Omaha, Nebraska, is leading the case, and working alongside five other attorneys with the national law firm, Husch Blackwell. The Foundation connected the plaintiffs with Summerlin, with whom they have worked before.
“Williston was on our radar for a number of years,” Coleman told the Williston Herald.
Coleman explained that in Williston, dog owners who are said to be in violation of the ordinance banning pit bulls are required to either plead guilty or be faced with huge fines. She also said that these dog owners are forced to sign an agreement which allows police to search their homes at any time, and the agreement does not expire.
Coleman argues that the current ordinance violates the civil rights of dog owners. It allows animal control officers to visually identify the breed of a dog, and then fine or arrest dog owners they deem to be in violation.
But the only way to definitively identify the breed of a dog is to complete a genetic test, Coleman added. Leaving the identification process up to visual interpretation makes it impossible for anyone to truly understand the ordinance. A community member will not know what training or knowledge each officer has on breed identification.
For a city ordinance to be constitutionally lawful, it must be understandable by any average person of average intelligence, Coleman contends, and Williston’s ordinance does not meet that criteria.
Coleman also noted that, in discovery, it was found that the city’s animal control officer’s have no official training on breed identification. They are just required to read a specified book on the topic.
Coleman explains that city ordinances must be in the best interest of the public according to the Constitution. It is her client’s contention that breed-specific legislation has no basis in public interest.
Coleman and Summerlin cite studies mapping the canine genome that have shown there is no relationship between genetics and behaviors, outside of pointing and herding breeds.
“We know, for sure, that looking at a dog has no indication on behavior,” Coleman said.
“The fact that we are coming in with the evidence that these plaintiffs will present… they come from very well-regarded experts in the canine scientific community.” Summerlin added, when asked how he plans to win the case.
Summerlin explained that a struggle he may face with this case is that when one challenges a city ordinance that does not violate one of the major civil rights, such as race or sex, the bar that city must overcome to prove they are not in violation is quite low. Summerlin believes that with science on their side, the plaintiffs still have a good chance of winning their lawsuit.
The major point Summerlin must prove in the federal court is that the concept of breed is not predictive of danger, a contention he believes has been adequately supported by scientific studies.
The plaintiffs in the case against Williston’s pit bull ordinance are hoping to strike down the ordinance completely, allowing every breed to reside within city limits. The plaintiffs are not seeking any monetary restitution at this time. The case is scheduled for December 2022. Both parties are actively engaged in discovery.
The Williston Police Department declined to comment for this story at this time.