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Case of Niko the dog headed to Virginia Court of Appeals

The legal fight over an Albemarle County Staffordshire bull terrier deemed vicious by the state in 2014 continues via a new appeal.

Eight-year-old Niko has been in isolated custody at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA for more than five years after a woman said he got loose in her yard and killed her cat.

Now, after exhausting other options, his owners are pursuing a legal strategy that would not send the dog home to his owners, but instead would re-home him and rehabilitate him.

In 2015, one of Niko’s owners, Toni Stacy, was convicted of being the owner of a dog that killed a cat. In December 2016, an Albemarle judge ordered Niko to be euthanized after the owners did not comply with court orders related to the case.

Stacy, along with Niko’s other owner, Audrey Wells, appealed the decision and filed a lawsuit on Wells’ behalf seeking to stop the euthanization. They argued that Wells was not convicted of a crime that would lead to Niko being put down and was never given a proper hearing.

However, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins threw the case out, ruling that Wells had been given at the chance to speak in court prior and had chosen not to.

Niko remains in the care of the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, where, according to Wells’ and Stacy’s attorney, Elliott Harding, the dog is allowed routine visits from his owners, who are allowed to play with him. Wells and Stacy regularly post updates and videos of Niko via a Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members who routinely send encouraging messages of support to the imprisoned pooch.

The legal saga surrounding Niko has been complicated, Harding said, and in the last year the civil suit on Wells’ behalf ended after the Supreme Court of Virginia did not take her appeal. Wells had argued Niko’s euthanization would result in the destruction of her property without a conviction and thereby violate her due process rights.

However, while Wells’ case is finished, Harding said he has moved forward with a case on Stacy’s behalf, challenging whether state code grants the authority to the courts or to the local governing body to determine whether Niko should be euthanized or transferred to another owner, Harding said.

“The court in this case has chosen to unilaterally determine the method of disposal, that being euthanization,” Harding wrote in an email to the Progress. “We believe this isn’t within the purview of the court and there are other available options that the local governing body very well may choose, such as transfer to another owner or organization.”

Because Niko has no history of harming humans, Harding said there are several groups willing to take the dog and rehabilitate him via therapy, socialization and other assistance.

However, the Albemarle County Circuit Court disagrees with the owners’ interpretation of state code, though Harding said the Commonwealth did not take a position or oppose his interpretation.

“We believe euthanization is inappropriate and other avenues are preferred,” Harding wrote.

Harding is currently drafting a brief to submit to the Virginia Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, introduced HB 1894, which would have given a court discretion with dangerous dogs whose owner does not meet certain requirements or fails to comply with court orders to, instead of ordering the dog to be put down, send a dog home to an approved family or authorize the dog’s transfer to a state not bordering Virginia. If a dog that was re-homed to another state reemerged in Virginia, it would be euthanized immediately.

The bill was ultimately tabled, effectively dying in subcommittee. It remains to be seen if a similar bill will be filed in the 2020 session.


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