The protracted legal case over a long-incarcerated Staffordshire bull terrier again made its way to the Virginia Court of Appeals on Wednesday as the dog’s owner continues to seek the release of her pet.
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 in March 2021.
However, the state appeals court granted an appeal for a May 2021 decision from an Albemarle County Circuit Court judge, giving the pup what may be one last shot at freedom.
Toni Stacy, Niko’s owner, was represented Wednesday by Elliott Harding, who argued the complicated case virtually in front of a three-judge panel.
The legal saga kicked off in 2015, when 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. Part of the sentencing order included putting Niko down.
Last year, Harding argued that because Stacy’s conviction was a Class 2 misdemeanor six years ago, the court no longer has jurisdiction to revoke her suspended sentence for failure to comply with the conditions of suspension.
That, he argued, means the courts no longer the authority to order that Stacy comply with the conditions of the suspended sentence, including euthanizing the dog.
“This case concerns the scope of a circuit court’s jurisdiction to order a third party to execute a condition of a defendant’s suspended sentence for a class two misdemeanor six years after the sentence was imposed,” Harding said Wednesday.
This is not the first time Stacy’s case has appeared before the Virginia Court of Appeals, who last heard an appeal from the defendant in March 2021. That hearing was spurred by a 2019 Albemarle County Circuit Court order that lifted the stay in Stacy’s criminal matter and ordered Niko to be killed.
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.
Following her appeal hearing, the Court of Appeals held that the county court’s original sentencing was issued under a Virginia law giving trial courts general authority to place reasonable conditions on a suspended jail sentence.
The Court of Appeals sent her criminal case back to local courts for the “sole purpose” of the county circuit court clarifying under which subsection of state code Stacy was convicted.
On Wednesday, Harding argued that the county circuit court’s ability to hold off her criminal sentence lapsed after December 8, 2016, when the state Supreme Court denied her appeal of the 2015 conviction and the court lifted the stay of sentence.
“But the issue in this case is a May 21, 2021, order that, when put up against the original sentencing order, has material differences that render it outside of the court’s scope and jurisdiction,” Harding said. “It orders Albemarle county to dispose of Nico six years after the fact, while the original sentencing order just merely listed his euthanization as a condition of Ms. Stacy’s suspended sentence. It was up for her to either satisfy that or not for fear of incarceration.”
Arguing on behalf of the Commonwealth, Timothy J. Huffstutter, an assistant attorney general, said the court did have the jurisdiction to enforce the conditions of Stacy’s suspended sentence and order Niko’s death.
Citing the many stays issued by the court due to appeals and civil actions, Huffstutter argued that only around 78 days of Stacy’s sentence have run. This would mean she falls within the 90 days she was given by the court to comply with her suspended sentence requirements, Huffstutter said.
That includes euthanizing the dog.
“Just from a policy standpoint, if Ms. Stacy is correct, then I think trial courts would be influenced to just forgo imposing suspended sentences, which I think makes for poor public policy,” he said. “If a defendant can appeal and delay and appeal and delay and run out the clock on a condition of a suspended sentence, and then turn around and tell the court ‘well, you don’t have you don’t have the authority to enforce the conditions on my suspended sentence anymore because I’ve appealed and delayed’ then I think that’s not a good motivation for trial courts to suspend sentences.”
During his rebuttal, Harding again emphasized that the issue at hand currently was whether the Albemarle County Circuit Court has the jurisdiction to impose a condition that relies on a third party.
“This would be a very unique precedent that has negative implications throughout criminal cases throughout the Commonwealth if we’re going to say that someone’s potential incarceration is subject to the execution of a condition by a third party,” Harding said.
It remains to be seen how the state Court of Appeals panel will rule and whether that decision will mark the end of Niko’s life.