While the legal implications of Gov. Paul LePage pardoning a Winslow dog that a court ordered be put to death remain unknown, some law experts said Friday that the governor’s unusual action reflects evolving precedence under which animals are treated less like property and more like people.
LePage on Thursday granted a pardon to Dakota, a 4-year-old Husky, after getting information about the case from a board member of the Humane Society Waterville Area, where the dog was being held pending the carrying out of a court order that it be euthanized. Dakota’s death sentence came after the dog, deemed dangerous by the town, had attacked and killed a neighboring dog last year and then attacked another dog at the same home this year. Advocates for Dakota say she is a sweet dog whose aggressive behavior was influenced by an abusive owner.
Sarah Schindler, a professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and the Glassman faculty research scholar, said the governor’s pardon is in line with recent developments in animal law. Historically, animals were legally recognized as property, but that concept is changing, Schindler said.
“There’s been a lot of recent development in science and cognitive studies of animals and animals’ brains, and those studies have shown that animals have intentionality and they have emotions like regret,” she said, adding that those are the kind of emotions taken into consideration when a person is pardoned.
“It just goes to show that most people do view animals as more than their property,” she said. While Schindler couldn’t speak about Dakota’s case specifically, she said that “as our science evolves, I think it makes sense that our laws would as well.”
Winslow Animal Control Officer Chris Martinez, who deemed Dakota to be dangerous, said Friday he’s taking the governor’s pardon “with a grain of salt,” because it’s unclear whether LePage’s action carries legal weight or is merely symbolic. A court hearing on an appeal of Dakota’s euthanization remains scheduled for April 11.
The Maine Constitution says the governor “shall have the power to remit after conviction all forfeitures and penalties, and to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons,” while never saying explicitly whether such action applies to a human or an animal.
Dmitry Bam, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said the Maine Constitution gives LePage “fairly extensive pardon and commutation power.”
However, Bam said the analogy to the president’s annual pardoning of a turkey in November — which LePage referenced to begin his news release Thursday announcing the pardon — “suggests that the governor views this as more of a ceremonial action.”
Even so, Martinez said he’s concerned that Dakota may be free once again after twice attacking other dogs.
“It definitely concerns me, because this dog has already twice violated, and who’s to say that it’s not going to do it again?” Martinez said Friday. He also said that Huskies are “good escape artists,” so if Dakota isn’t euthanized, her owner will have to be able to control her.
‘IT’S REALLY SCARY’
Dakota’s first infraction happened in February 2016, when she killed a smaller dog, according to Martinez. Dakota’s owner at the time, Matthew Perry, was ordered to keep her confined or on a short leash.
This past winter Dakota again got loose and went back to the victims’ home, attacking their new dog, according to Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.
Dakota later ended up at the Waterville Area Humane Society as a stray, where Linda Janeski adopted her. Janeski’s daughter previously owned the dog with Perry before they broke up.
Janeski and the shelter both said they were unaware of the second infraction and court date. The shelter also said it received permission to put the dog up for adoption, but the District Attorney’s Office and the animal control officer both deny that claim.
Martinez said he advised the Humane Society that the dog was released into their ownership, as she would no longer belong to Perry. The shelter also received a copy of the dangerous-dog order, he said.
“I would hope it would’ve been common sense not to adopt out a dangerous dog,” Martinez said.
Janeski has filed a request for an emergency temporary restraining order against Martinez and law enforcement with respect to attempts to enforce the euthanization order, according to a motion to vacate the court’s previous order that was filed on March 28.
Matthew Perry is scheduled to appear at 1 p.m. April 11 in Waterville District Court.
Meanwhile, a Winslow woman who was once attacked by pit bulls while walking her dog said she is also worried. Sharron Carey, of Winslow, was walking her 10-month-old Boston terrier when two pit bulls attacked them both, wounding Carey and killing her dog. The dogs were ordered to be euthanized, but the owners filed an appeal in January, which has yet to be decided.
Carey thinks LePage has “made a big mistake” with his high-profile pardon.
“I think everybody’s worried about it,” she said, adding that it isn’t fair that Martinez is taking the “heat” for an issue that isn’t his fault.
She questioned whether LePage spoke to the victims in the case or gave thought to Winslow’s new ordinance that updates how the town deals with dangerous dogs.
Dog owners often feel as though their dogs are part of their family, Carey said, so if the victims feel as she did, “they hurt.”
“To see something like this, to know that this dog may be back on the street, it’s really scary,” she said.
Ultimately, the question will come down to what the legal meanings of “pardon” and “commutation” are and what they were understood to mean historically, according to Bam, the law professor.
Maloney, who could not be reached for further comment Friday, said earlier that the court ultimately would determine whether LePage’s pardon carries legal weight in the case.
The beginning of the section of the Maine Constitution that deals with pardoning also says that the governor “shall have power to remit after conviction all forfeitures.”
“As I understand it, the dog has not been ‘convicted’ of anything, and our law largely treats animals as property,” Bam said.
Yet the issue also raises the question of whether LePage is misusing his executive power, Bam said, by essentially overruling a judicial decision. “I would say this is a pretty broad grant of power to the governor,” he said.
Bam said he thinks this is a novel question, but there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer.
Either way, he said he doubts this case will really set a legal precedent.
“I would imagine this is a pretty rare situation,” Bam said. “I doubt it will be invoked all that frequently.”
Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239