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Condemned dog Niko's owner experiences another legal setback

An Albemarle County judge has denied the latest attempt to prevent the euthanization of a Staffordshire bull terrier deemed vicious by the state in 2014.

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

The long legal battle to rehome Niko or return him to his owners has seen multiple appeals since 2015, with the latest being largely denied by the Virginia Court of Appeals on March 9.

The legal saga kicked off in 2015, when one of Niko’s owners, Toni Stacy, was convicted of being the owner of a dog that killed a cat. On Aug. 6, 2015, Stacy was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 90 days suspended and, per the sentencing order, Niko’s euthanization was a condition of Stacy’s suspended sentence.

Stacy, along with Niko’s other owner, Audrey Wells, appealed the decision and filed a lawsuit against Albemarle County and the local SPCA 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.

“Niko’s euthanization was stayed pending the outcome of Ms. Wells’ civil suit,” attorney Elliott Harding wrote in Stacy’s latest civil filing in Albemarle County Circuit Court. “Ms. Wells’ claims were denied by this court and her final appeal was ultimately denied as well.”

The circuit court entered an order in 2019 to lift the stay in Stacy’s criminal matter and ordered Niko to be put down. Stacy filed a motion to vacate the amended order and, after her motion was denied, subsequently appealed the case to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

In March, the Court of Appeals held that the county court’s original sentencing order was issued pursuant to a Virginia code section that gives trial courts general authority to place reasonable conditions on the suspension of a sentence of incarceration.

The Court of Appeals remanded her criminal case for the “sole purpose” of having the county circuit court clarify which subsection of state code Stacy was convicted of, which, according to the record, is for a Class 2 misdemeanor.

On May 21 of this year, the Albemarle court entered an order to lift a stay in the case and ordered Niko to be put down by the county. However, Harding claims that, contrary to the assertions contained within that order, Stacy did not move for the court to issue the order.

Now, Harding is arguing that due to Stacy’s conviction having been for a Class 2 misdemeanor nearly six years ago, the court no longer has jurisdiction to revoke her suspended sentence for failure to comply with the conditions of suspension and that there is no longer jurisdiction to order compliance with the conditions of suspension — including the euthanization of Niko.

In a hearing Monday in Albemarle County Circuit Court, Harding defended a recently filed lawsuit for declaratory judgment. Per the lawsuit, Harding argued that the court longer has jurisdiction to enforce the conditions of Stacy’s suspended sentence and asked for a stay of euthanization.

The motion was opposed by Richard DeLoria, senior assistant attorney for Albemarle County, who sought to have the motion dismissed partially on the grounds it was an inappropriate remedy for a criminal matter.

Describing the filing as “something out of the Twilight Zone,” DeLoria argued that the case had been settled by the March order from the Court of Appeals and that the circuit court’s orders from 2019 and prior had been affirmed.

“I can’t think of a more clearly defined case and I certainly haven’t seen one more clearly defined during my career,” he said.

In addition to requesting that the motion be thrown out, DeLoria described the legal action as frivolous and requested that both Stacy and Harding be fined $1,000 each.

Much of Harding’s arguments revolved around the May order, which he maintained neither Stacy nor the commonwealth requested. Harding also argued that the court did not have the power to order the euthanization of Niko and that the 2015 sentence did not clarify whether it was the responsibility of Stacy or not.

Ultimately, Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins sided with DeLoria and the county and granted the county’s demurrer, effectively dismissing this latest legal effort. Higgins declined to financially sanction Harding or Stacy.

However, despite this legal setback, the case remains active due to the Court of Appeals’ March decision to remand Stacy’s criminal case to the county circuit court for the “sole purpose” of having the court clarify which code section she was convicted under.

Niko remains at the SPCA, where, according to Harding, the dog is allowed routine visits from his owners, who are permitted to play with him. Wells and Stacy regularly post updates and videos of Niko via a Facebook group with about 9,000 members who routinely send encouraging messages of support to Niko and his owners.


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