Q. Judge Smith, how can local government enact ordinances that expose people to criminal prosecution? Just call me a non-conformist. Dan
A. The state or the federal government preempts some areas of law. Otherwise, county and city governments can enact local ordinances. The idea is that our local officials are the closest to local issues. They can perceive problems, listen to citizens’ input, debate, and decide on pressing issues.
Suppose a county commission enacts an ordinance about dogs and public parks. For example, the city may designate certain parks as dog-free. Likewise, the city may allow leashed dogs to walk in designated public parks as long as the people walking them pick up their dogs’ poop and discard it in a trash can. Local governments often post signs at the entrances and exits to give people additional warnings.
County and city commissions decide local public policy. For example, suppose the local law imposes a $100 fine for not cleaning up a dog’s droppings and a second-degree misdemeanor for walking an unleashed dog. Sentencing exposure for second-degree misdemeanors is up to 60 days in the county jail and a fine of $500.
Let’s use two examples to bring home the point. Suppose you walk your dog in a city park without using a leash, and Rover happens upon a toddler and bites her. You get sued–that is a given. You might get prosecuted for a crime too.
In our second example, unleashed Rover runs up to a leashed dog, and the two canines bite each other and draw blood. Guess who gets blamed? You! You may get sued. You may get prosecuted. Both dogs suffered wounds, and you will face expensive veterinarian bills.
Some people are scared of dogs, and you don’t want to terrorize them. Some dogs are reactive when confronted, so all dogs should be leashed. If your dog is a sweetheart, you can still expect bared teeth and fireworks if he invades another dog’s space.
It’s no defense to claim that Rover has never bitten a child or gotten into a dog fight. Further, claiming you were oblivious or had Polly-Anna-like good intentions may not cut it with the prosecutor or a jury. The prosecutor and the plaintiff’s lawyer may use your leash law violation against you in court. And who needs the anxiety of being prosecuted or sued?
Instead, the safer course is to be considerate and obey the law. It’s always good advice to think about others and the impact of your actions on them.
Often, political friction exists when the federal government preempts the state and when the state preempts a local government. But those decisions belong to our policymakers in Congress and the legislature. You can influence their decisions by voting.