From the Doghouse to the Courthouse: San Antonio’s Special Pet Court

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One morning a week, a San Antonio, Texas, courtroom goes to the dogs. Literally. Every Friday, all the cases heard by Municipal Court Judge Daniel Guerrero involve pets — mostly dogs but sometimes a cat or two as well.

For the past 10 months, the city has handled issues — such as dog bites or failure to license or vaccinate a pet — in a special animal court. While San Antonio may have the only animal court in the nation, there is a trend in many cities toward specialized courts to handle issues like drug offenses or cases involving the mentally ill. The idea is to let judges develop more of an understanding of certain types of cases, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Animal court sends the message that "irresponsible pet ownership will not be tolerated," Joe Angelo, the interim director of San Antonio's Animal Care Services department, told the Journal.

Before animal court began, pet-related cases were heard in courts all over San Antonio. But officials said they weren’t getting enough attention or tough enough punishment.

Since the court was formed, the city has collected $250,000 in fines against pet owners, according to the Journal. The average fine that most defendants pay for one violation is $269, reported local TV station WOIA in October. Violations include failure to contain, license and vaccinate a pet.

Not everyone thinks animal court is a good idea, though. Critics call the court a waste of taxpayer dollars, and accuse the city of going after petty offenses.

"We have moved toward an overcriminalization model, where everything is punishable by jails or fines," Lisa Wayne, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the Journal.

City officials defend the idea, and say problems with pet violations in San Antonio were escalating and required more attention.

“Sometimes hitting people in the pocketbook is the only way you can make them understand the seriousness of their actions,” Lisa Norwood, the city’s Animal Care Services spokesperson, told WOIA.

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