Steamboat city court overburdened by dog-at-large cases after policy change
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A move aimed at tracking repeat animal-at-large offenses, which includes those who are cited for having a dog off-leash, has produced unintended consequences.
Last Tuesday, Steamboat Springs City Council tried to remedy the results of a policy change that led to the Municipal Court being overburdened by animal-related cases.
Under the current city databases, Steamboat Springs Police Department officers can’t see a person’s prior Municipal Court convictions. Those records are maintained by the court, but that database doesn’t link up to the police database.
This isn’t an issue for most municipal violations, which usually have a flat fine. But fines for having an animal at large or an animal without a Routt County pet license can increase based on the number of convictions.
For an animal at large, the fine for a first offense is $50, $75 for a second offense and $100 for each citation after the second. When an officer can’t see prior convictions, they can’t write the appropriate fine on these citations.
To be sure the city was fining repeat offenders the correct amount, the city started referring every animal-at-large citation to the Municipal Court in February.
“We do not have a way to write the appropriate fine on the citations when the citations are written,” City Attorney Dan Foote explained to City Council at its June 17 meeting. “That means that citations have to be written as mandatory court appearances. That’s causing some congestion in the municipal court.”
Now, the Municipal Court is being bogged down with pet owners mandated to appear in court. Foote said this creates an “unnecessary waste of time” for most defendants, who just want to pay the ticket.
In a memo to City Council, Foote explained the process is time-consuming for the court, prosecutor and defendant. It also increases the prosecutor’s workload as there are more cases and more defendants requesting an opportunity to negotiate a plea bargain with the Municipal Court prosecutor.
According to Foote, 24 of the 52 cases that went before the Municipal Court on Wednesday, June 19, were citations for animals at large or animals without a pet license.
Unable to process in the field
“The root of the issue is that there is no way for people in the field to verify previous citations for the same violation, so the remedy that we thought of was to just have every individual have a mandatory court date,” Steamboat Springs Police Cmdr. Jerry Stabile said. “Then Municipal Court could, by the time their court appearance comes, ascertain that information.”
The Municipal Court and the city use two different databases that don’t interface with each other. This means officers in the field can’t access a person’s municipal court records when a citation is being written.
Municipal Court Clerk Theresa Lichtenfels said the city has explored allowing the municipal court and the police databases to interface, but it was “costly and data prohibitive” for the two to work together. Stabile explained that the two systems were never intended to be integrated.
“It takes time to get to court,” Stabile said. “There’s stress involved in that, and a ton of people will recognize that ‘Yeah, I got a citation. I’m going to pay it and get on with my life.’ We want to search for a remedy, also, that doesn’t put that extra burden on them if they’re first-time offenders.”
Finding a solution
The Steamboat Springs City Council gave staff direction to remedy this in two ways.
In the short-term, the council directed staff to write an ordinance that would allow people to pay the appropriate graduated fine by speaking to the court clerk.
In the long-term, the council plans to pursue one flat fee for these citations. At their June 17 meeting, council members learned the number of repeat offenders in recent years has been relatively small.
Lichtenfels said in 2017 and 2018, there were three repeat offenders who were cited for having an animal at large more than once. A citation is considered a second offense if a person has been cited within the last two years.
“In all actuality, I feel there’s a misconception that there are many, many repeat offenders in the dog-at-large world — or animal at large,” she said. “It’s a really small number of repeat offenders, and that’s either second, third or multiple animal-at-large offenses.”
Council members did not discuss the amount of the proposed fee.
The council plans to consider a flat fee before November.
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In an effort to connect better with their voters, Steamboat Springs City Council members will begin tabling at Ski Free Sundays, which are every Sunday at Howelsen Hill.