I am a seventy-five year old married homeowner, retired from a professional career, with no more than a minor traffic ticket to show for my whole lifetime. I signal when I turn into my own garage and return to the grocery store to pay for an overlooked $3 item in my shopping cart. I am also a criminal, lumped with thieves, thugs, and alcoholics.
And not even for a matter of principle, but because my dog got out.
When our old labrador-mix died, we decided on a small dog and adopted a rescue named Louie, 33 pounds and supposedly well-behaved.
Over the next few weeks we paid for shots, worming, licensing, and heartworm treatment. In all it was about a thousand dollars; not a small outlay.
We soon became fond of Louie despite his faults.
He jumped on couches, chairs and beds, nesting amid the books, brass bowl, and other objects that we had laid out as deterrents.
He stole a chicken carcass and threw up on one rug, and had diarrhea on another rug.
He barked at every dog he saw, including his own reflection. He loved people, including burglars I suspected.
He did learn to stay off couches and to accept other dogs but began to pee in the house, every 10 days or so, always when I was particularly busy or preoccupied.
Tranquilizing meds cured what veterinary-advice websites labeled ‘inappropriate marking due to separation and abandonment anxiety’. We were delighted that we didn’t have to give him up. If, as claimed, stroking or playing with a pet releases endorphins in both pet and owner we must have been knee deep in endorphins. For a while.
Louie ran away several times in the first four days we had him, but made no effort to escape after we fortified the fence. We concluded that he’d settled in. That summer, however, he developed a routine. He’d creep up behind me, then dash past, squeeze through the gate, and then under, over, or around any obstacle blocking him.
He’d been neutered late, at four or five and I wondered if he was just following longstanding habits, seeking spring romance.
In a month I lost four times as much weight as normally lost over a whole summer, constantly monitoring Louie’s whereabouts and dashing off after him.
It never occurred to us to return Louie to the rescue organization; we’d dealt with other problems. He was our dog, and our responsibility. We loved him.
Then he bit someone and I found myself in what felt like a nightmare.
The letter from the Department of Safety and Inspections notified me that “Louie . . . beagle mix, license no. . . . is hereby declared a potentially dangerous animal . . .”. It gave requirements we must comply with and notice of procedures to set up a hearing. I was dismayed.
The Animal Control officer who came to the house stroked Louie and said that for ten days, he was allowed outside only on a leash, even in our back yard, and not allowed contact with any other human being except us. After this, we’d still have to abide by various restrictions. Despite the fact that, as we later discovered, the biting incident was minor.
The vet said she thought Louie had always been a ‘runner’ and would persist. I couldn’t imagine either keeping a dog in the house all the time, or letting him out and living under the constant stress of the previous few months.
The animal rescue organization said they couldn’t place him elsewhere, and that our only option was euthanasia. If we kept him we’d lose our homeowners’ insurance, they said. I cried while the vet gave him the necessary shots. Louie knew nothing about it and it may have been better than being abandoned again. We missed him terribly and were fearful of owning another dog.
That was in July.
In September, an ‘Arraignment Notice’ from Ramsey County Second District Court informed me that I was ‘expected to appear fully prepared’ at the courthouse in early November.
I was apprehensive, but not devastated. I’d never had any dealings with the law before.
“I’ll be really glad to get this over with,” I said.
I imagined that I would go before a referee of some sort, perhaps be admonished, pay the fine, and that would be the end of it — something like paying for a traffic ticket.
After the hearing, when I was devastated, I looked up ‘misdemeanor’ on the web and discovered that, ‘ . . . misdemeanors may include: petty theft, prostitution, public intoxication, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespass, vandalism, drug possession, reckless driving, . .’ It referred to punishments of ‘up to 12 months of incarceration, probation, community service, . . . professional licenses, public offices, or public employment.’
I was a criminal. This was horrible. I might as well have a scarlet ‘C’ on my front.
I went to the arraignment, quaking.
Shock number one:
The large courtroom was packed, and I couldn’t hear. Most of the other dependents looked down and out and dejected. Hmong ladies in knitted hats looked confused and stoic; young men lounged in low-slung jeans, scruffy jackets and dirty sneakers. A couple of my fellow defendants had beaten people up. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Shock number two:
Three hours later, I had not been called and asked how to expedite things (my elderly husband was relying on me to drive him to an MD appointment). The prosecuting attorney, a young woman surrounded by files, said that it would go faster, if I pleaded, ‘guilty’.
Okay, I had owned Louie.
“You’ll just get a fine and probation.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, you won’t have to report in.”
Probation! Not knowing anything about probation I assumed it would for a few weeks if that. It wasn’t as if I’d bitten someone.
Shock number three:
The prosecuting attorney asked for probation ‘to ensure restitution’. After inquiring whether I had a record (!), the judge, otherwise quite pleasant, imposed $150 in fines and probation for a year.
I would never have dreamed it would be that long, but then I would never have dreamed of any of this.
Phew! Now I could go home . . . but as I was leaving, I was handed a sheet of paper:
I must, “report IMMEDIATELY to the Corrections Intake office”.
I telephoned our son who agreed handle his father’s MD appointment.
The intake office was labeled, “Ramsey County Adult Corrections” in letters about foot high! I cringed again.
What was I doing here?
The probation fee was $300. So far this process had already cost me $450. The conditions of probation included that I ‘remain law-abiding’ (as if I’d ever been anything else.) and commit ‘no same or similar (offense)’.
I was scheduled for a Probation Orientation Intake in mid-December.
I looked over the original ‘potentially dangerous animal’ notification and saw that the ‘incident’ had occurred three blocks away. I’d been so distressed that I had overlooked the address in the fine print. I decided to go and talk to the man. Maybe I could speed things up.
The house was an enormous Victorian within a thick hedge and curtained windows. A young woman stepped out on to the large porch, closing the door after her very quickly. She was very pleasant, perfectly normal looking, but the house seemed a little secretive.
She, the bitee’s wife, was friendly and sorry I’d had so much hassle. The bite had barely broken the skin and occurred when they tried to separate Louie from their big fierce cat that attacked intruders in their yard. They had called Animal Control so the dog could be reunited with its owner. Medical costs were $50, to cover the cost of shots. Louie had had all his shots.
I left a letter for her husband, with my address, e-mail and phone number and a plea to get back to me. The letter apologized for the incident and offered to pay any out-of-pocket costs.
I said the dog had been put to sleep, and that I was hoping to show that I had paid any expenses, to get probation removed.
I also mentioned that the prosecuting attorney had been trying to get in touch with them, unsuccessfully.
The next letter I received was from the ‘probation representative assigned to monitor restitution in your case.’ it confirmed dates, and said:
“Recently you were sentenced in Ramsey County Court to probation supervision. …you are required to report, in person, for a Probation Reporting Center Orientation. Failure to do so may result in further court action and a warrant may be issued for your arrest.”
They’d handcuff me and put me in an orange suit?
I telephoned the ‘probation representative’ and explained the situation. She was sympathetic, and I told her what a nightmare this was, so totally outside my experience that I was too stressed out to sleep. I asked if I could avoid going to the orientation; with my hearing problem I’d probably have a hard time understanding what was going on anyway.
She said she thought that once the restitution issue was settled, a memo would probably go to the judge saying this was no longer a probation issue and recommending it be dropped. This might take three months at least.
I told her I’d talked to the man’s wife, and would again offer to pay the $50, but she suggested I leave it to the legal system. Still sympathetic, she also suggested I attend the orientation, “Just to cover your . . . bases.” (I think she’d been going to say ‘cover your ass’, but sensitively dialed down).
She also said I could call her again in a month to see if anything had developed.
Relieved to have been treated as a non-criminal human being, I still woke every day under a black cloud. I flinched at the words ‘court’ or ‘punishment’ or ‘law’ or ‘judgment’, whatever the context, in a book or newspaper article. I feared being stopped for driving five miles over the limit and the cop finding out I had a record. I worried that the man bitten would be less pleasant than his wife, so annoyed by the whole business (they’d apparently been plagued by attorneys urging them to sue), that he’d do something that would bring down more coals on my head.
I sent a second letter, apologizing for pestering him. I mentioned that the probation supervisor had sent him a letter at the same time she sent me a letter, and asked that he please reply to the letter as soon as convenient.
I went to the orientation, and cringed. It was well run and as non-punitive as possible in the circumstances, so I tried not to show my distress. The experience itself was punishing. Afterward I met individually with ‘my’ probation officer, a comfortable friendly woman, surprised that I was there. She said she’d had other ‘misfit’ clients and could understand what I was feeling. “But for some of the people here it’s a way of life,” she added. She promised to write to the judge to see if she could get the probation waived.
We went through the procedures for monthly reporting ( I did have to report, but by telephone) and mailing the envelope (including my Corrections ID number in the address) with the $7 monthly fee. I thanked her for her kindness; she wished me the best of luck.
The humane treatment helped, but I still felt chewed up by the system.
The silver lining was the outpouring of support and incredulous, “I can’t believe this!” from everyone I knew. Some people burst out laughing at the absurdity or my being ‘on probation’ or a ‘criminal’– also supportive in its own way. When I realized how much this was helping me, I deliberately told any friend who asked ‘how are you doing?”, ”not good”, and dumped it all.
‘Convicted’ of a misdemeanor I ended up on ‘supervised probation’ for a year. The change I hoped for by April or May didn’t happen.
Despite my distress, I can’t praise the court and probation staff enough. They were unfailingly polite and helpful, with everyone, not just obviously- middle-class senior-citizen me. It still felt awful because of the labeling and the official language– that might be necessary with hardened cases but felt unnecessarily punitive to me.
In theory, one-size-fits-all is the best way to obtain justice, but does it always make sense? There’s a difference between an attack dog ripping the flesh, a loose dog whose owner makes no attempt to restrain it, and a case like mine.
Furthermore, probation to ensure retribution seems downright silly in my case. I actively tried to pay the medical costs and I was hardly likely to flit, leaving home, family and a physically dependent spouse, to avoid paying $50.
If the Law supposes I was, “then the law is an ass” as Dickens’ Mr. Bumble says.
Born and raised in London, Anne Campbell worked as a fashion sketcher before immigrating to the States in her early twenties. She lived in California and New York before settling in Minnesota, where she has worked as a university lecturer and psychotherapist.
Ms. Campbell is the published author of four novels and a memoir.