Judge Donna Geck effectively spared the lives of two dogs accused of biting a neighbor that came onto their property this February by ruling the dogs were “potentially dangerous” instead of “vicious,” as Animal Control Sergeant Kasi Corbett with the Santa Barbara Police Department had decreed. As a result, Maddie and Mason — one a pit bull and one a pit bull/Rottweiler mix — will now be allowed to return to their home on the 900 block of Olive Street. Had the ruling gone the other way, the two dogs would have been sentenced to a deadly date with the needle.
Judge Geck provided no explanation for her ruling, but it came on the heels of a passionately fought two-day trial that heard testimony from 11 witnesses, including that of the dog-bite victim, Michael Biancone, who for 15 years has lived next door to the dogs’ owner, Edward Figone, a retired mail carrier.
On a few key details all parties agree: Sometime early in the afternoon of February 8, Biancone opened the front gate to Figone’s front yard to discuss a fire that had started — and was put out — on Figone’s property the night before. There was a sign by the gate reading “Beware of Dog.” Biancone — a solidly built man in his fifties — had gotten a few steps into Figone’s yard when the two dogs started barking. Biancone put out a hand to calm the approaching dogs.
What happened next happened so fast no one is sure who did exactly what. But before the dust settled, Biancone sustained a bite to the neck that would require seven stitches. His hand and forearms got bit as well, though no stitches would be required. As the dogs charged, Biancone stumbled backward and then down the two steps leading from the Figones’ property to the sidewalk, landing on his back. In the frenzy of the moment, Biancone could not discern which dog did what. Figone then showed up and got his barking dogs off Biancone.
Sergeant Corbett determined the dogs met the legal definition of “vicious” after a hearing held February 27, which legally means they have a propensity to attack without provocation and inflict severe damage. She ruled the dogs needed to be euthanized. Figone and his family appealed that ruling, and the hearing — much delayed because of COVID — was held this week.
The Figones waged a vigorous defense, hiring criminal defense attorney Anne Hayes and flooding the court with more than 50 letters testifying to the dogs’ upstanding character and disposition written by family members, friends, neighbors, and even two mail carriers who have had almost daily contact with the dogs. They even presented an expert witness or two.
Yes, Biancone had been bitten, the Figones acknowledged, but it was Biancone who entered the Figones’ property. And their dogs had never attacked anyone before — on their property or off. And while the bite drew blood, emergency rooms doctors described the bite alternately as “a significant bite” and a “superficial soft-tissue laceration.” It was two centimeters in length, approximately four-fifths of one-inch long. The bite, the emergency room report stated, was not deep.
Representing City Hall and Animal Control was Denny Wei, the city’s prosecuting attorney. “We were very concerned about the severity of the bite,” he stated after the judge ruled.
In court rulings, it was pointed out that one of the dogs was sufficiently anxious that it required one to three Prozac pills a day. Both dogs, the prosecution noted, needed to be muzzled when going to the vet. Wei added that he had sought multiple times to negotiate a deal with the Figones that would have allowed the dogs to remain alive but would protect the safety of the community. No deal, he lamented, was possible.
Hayes expressed similar frustrations and noted that she had tried multiple times to negotiate a settlement with the city on behalf of her clients, the Figones, but like Wei found the exercise long, bewildering, and ultimately fruitless. As for the muzzles, she noted that half the people who use the same vet as the Figones also muzzle their dogs. It’s a precautionary measure.
The Figones were ultimately allowed to move their dogs from the animal shelter to a private kennel. During the trip, the Figones charged, the animal control officer yanked a pull cord around one of the dogs’ necks so roughly that it was snorting blood out of its nostrils for three days. The family has filed a complaint against the Police Department and the Animal Control officer. Likewise, Biancone has filed a civil action against the Figones, noting — among other things — that he had to have the stitches redone by an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
In the meantime, the two dogs can now return home, but Hayes and Wei will have to hammer out new security precautions designed to make sure the dogs don’t have the opportunity to bite anyone again. Edward Figone, in the meantime, has already installed a new coded lock on his gate and a security camera as well. As for Hayes, it was her first time out defending a canine defendant. “I’m really glad these dogs finally get to come home to their family,” she said.
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