Maryland Assembly may take bite out of ruling on pit bulls

Owners fearful of liability in attacks

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The Maryland General Assembly could consider legislation that would soften the impact of an April court ruling classifying pit bulls as “inherently dangerous” in the latest of several recent cases that have highlighted the checks and balances between the state’s legislative and judicial branches.

A panel of Maryland lawmakers will meet later this month to study the possible effects of a state Court of Appeals decision that makes owners of pit bulls or pit-bull mixes liable if their dog attacks another person, even if the dog had no prior history of dangerous behavior.

The assembly is expected to hold a July special session to consider expanding gambling in the state, but could also pass a bill to put pit bulls on equal footing with other breeds.

It would not be the first time this year that the assembly and the state's highest court have failed to see eye to eye on legislation.

“That is the way American government works: The courts have the ability to make some policy decisions, and the legislature has the ability to overrule them,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat. “Just like they have the ability to review our decisions for constitutionality.”

The pit-bull ruling has drawn significant public outcry owing largely to the fact that it also holds landlords liable if they knowingly rent to a pit-bull owner whose dog attacks someone.

Activists and many lawmakers argue the decision could lead to widespread evictions of owners who refuse to give their dogs away, as well as an increase in dogs given to animal shelters that may have to euthanize them.

“We have families who are having to choose between going to a shelter and dropping off your dog or purchasing insurance and liability protection that’s currently not available,” Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat, said last month. “We say ‘no’ to that.”

The assembly last overrode a court decision during this year’s regular session, including its passage of a law absolving public defenders from having to attend defendants’ initial appearances before District Court commissioners.

The legislation came in response to a January Court of Appeals ruling that required the attorneys to be present unless the defendant waives his or her right to representation - a decision that lawmakers said would require the state to spend millions more in staffing and administrative costs.

Lawmakers also passed a bill designed to partially shield property owners from a recent Court of Appeals ruling that removed a $17,000 liability cap in lead-paint poisoning cases against owners who had made steps toward removing lead paint from their buildings.

The Court of Appeals has also done its share of tweaking assembly action, including a ruling this year that would void a 2008 law that allowed police to collect DNA samples from suspects in violent crimes prior to charging or conviction.

Sen. Joseph M. Getty, Carroll Republican, said the two branches aren’t overstepping their boundaries in such cases, but are simply trying to perfect the law.

“I’m not approaching this process as ‘the judiciary got it wrong, and we need to fight them,’” he said. “I think the judicial and legislative branches should be working toward the goal of having the best public policy for the citizens of Maryland.”

A 10-member task force of Senate and House lawmakers is tentatively scheduled to hold its first meeting June 19 to discuss the pit-bull ruling and possible legislation.

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