Dog owners across the country are arrested over late payment for dog licenses

Last month Michigan mom Becky Rehr drove to the Kalamazoo County Michigan Sheriff’s Office. She was there to resolve an ongoing dispute with the director of Kalamazoo County Animal Services & Enforcement, Steve Lawrence, who had been sending threatening letters and leaving threatening voicemails at the Rehr household. At issue was a $10 dog license fee for the Rehr family's 11 year old dog Dexter.

Becky Rehr had paid the $10 but had continued to receive threats from Lawrence's office. The payment had been late; like many human beings tasked with responsibilities, other matters had taken priority over the County's annual demand of tribute.

"[I had] every intention of taking care of it. But with the end of the school year and my job, it just totally got put on the back burner." - Becky Rehr to the Associated Press

There is some dispute as to exactly when Rehr paid her fine, and exactly when Animal Control threatened her with what. What is clear is that at some point between late May and mid-June, Becky paid her fine and an Animal Control bureaucrat told Becky that a warrant had been issued for her arrest.

Becky Rehr alongside her loving pup Dexter

Rehr decided that the most reasonable course of action would be to stop by the Kalamazoo County Michigan Sheriff’s Office to explain and resolve the situation. Likely the Kalamazoo County Animal Services & Enforcement was exaggerating the reality of the situation. Processing a warrant and an arrest would cost thousands of dollars. Such an outrageous over-reaction would have to be completely vindictive. It certainly would make no sense to provide such a massive outlay for the hope of extracting $10 from a family whose crime was owning a dog. If Animal Services had bizaarely become emotionally invested in the receipt of the precious $10, surely the deputies with the Kalamazoo Sheriff's Office would have a bit more sense, as a disinterested and reasonable third party. Right?

So Becky Rehr set out to the Sheriffs Office with her 14 year old daughter in tow (this would after all just be one of several errands) to present proof of payment of the license fee - which had now more than tripled to $35. It was there that Becky was arrested and detained.

It took three hours for Becky to be set free through posting another $100 in bond money - during that time Becky was frisked and placed in a cell with others who had been arrested. Her young daughter was left outside to wonder what had become of her mom during that time.

Rehr brought her story to the Kalamazoo Gazette, from where it went national after being picked up by the Associated Press. The public reaction to the story was nearly in complete support of Becky Rehr. Fortunately, the embarrassment was enough to shame the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's Office into doing the right thing by dropping the criminal charges against Becky.

"No court and total dismissal!!!!! I don't have to go to court and I get my bond money back. I'm free!!!!" - Becky Rehr to the Kalamazoo Gazette

Becky and her family are fortunate that her story received quick and supportive media attention. It is not difficult to imagine that this case could have gone much differently had the petty thuggery of Kalamazoo County Animal Services & Enforcement director Steve Lawrence continued in the relative secrecy with which such crimes typically proceed. Becky's story is another powerful example of what drives us to continue the Puppycide Database Project - transparency is the strongest weapon that we currently have against government officials who abuse their power.

Unfortunately, arrests over dog licenses aren't unique to the Mid West. An even more awful story came to light last year in Massachusetts. This time the victims are Ann Musser, her husband Ozzie Ercan and their adorable 14 year old dog Pumpkin. Ann, Ozzie and Pumpkin hail from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke is remarkably similar to Kalamazoo County Michigan in their treatment of those who forget to renew their dog licenses. Those with late renewals are scheduled to appear to court. Dog owners who miss the mailed notification, or do not receive it, are automatically charged with criminal failure to appear in court - a misdemeanor. The demands to appear in court are mailed in plain, white envelopes and are not sent certified return receipt or by courier, as is often required in processing for a civil trial. The only substantive difference between Holyoke and Kalamazoo is that Holyoke's renewal fee is $5 instead of $10 (as long as your dog is neutered).

No regard is given in this process to dog owners who have legitimate excuses for late payment. Ann, Ozzie and Pumpkin had a very good reason to have over-looked the $5. Ann had been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and was in the midst of treatment and preparing for surgery.

Ann Musser, her husband Ozzie Ercan and their dog Pumpkin

“Your priorities are a little different when you are fighting death. It’s easy to lose track of how important those little pieces of paper are.” - Ozzie Ercan, speaking about his wife Ann Musser's contemptible detainment by Holyoke MA city officials in the Springfield Republican

As in the case of Becky Rehr, City officials sent a series of threatening letters to Ann Musser, and Musser would attempt to pay the licensing & late fee but it was too late. A warrant for failure to appear had been issued. Musser would be arrested by a Massachusetts State Trooper who follower her husband home after a trip to a corner store. As before, police, city and court officials were unmoved by the knowledge that Musser suffered from a late-stage and frequently fatal form of cancer. Absolutely no medical accomodation or monitoring was provided to her during her court appearances or incarceration.

"They said, 'There's nothing we can do. Sorry, we're going to have to arrest you.'" - Ann Musser, describing her treatment by police to the Springfield Republican

At the time of her arrest Ann's white blood cell count was so low that her doctors had ordered her to stay indoors to avoid the possibility of acquiring an airborne infection. A bacteria on a door knob or a cough frequently causes life-threatening complications in immuno-supressed people.

“I was literally barefoot in a cement cell for an hour and a half. They gave me a blanket that may have been clean, but I didn’t know who used it. There was a mattress, but it had some stuff on it, so I didn’t want to sit on it. And the glass wall had all these finger smears, and it looked like someone spit on the window and it dried there. I didn’t want to touch anything.” - Ann Musser, describing her detainment to the Springfield Republican

The same bureaucracy put into place to protect pet owners like Ann Musser and their animals has instead so convoluted its mission that it happily incarcerates responsible pet owners over arbitrary $5 tariffs for which no service is provided. The risk posed to the life of Ann Musser by her brief incarceration is an outlier, however the lives of pets whose owners are arrested is not an outlier. Even a brief stay in jail of a couple of days would easily spell death for a pet unexpectedly left alone without water and food. That is no concern to Holyoke Animal Control Officer Donald Tryon, who signs off on late dog payment tickets and send them to the district courts that issue warrants for pet owners like Ann.

The risks and obvious injustice of this scheme is also no concern to Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee, who accepts the payments for pet licenses. Someone with even the slightest interest in maintaining a positive relationship with the public at large might have been contrite when confronted with the story of Ann Musser, her arrest and her illness by the press. Brenna McGee, however, failed to even pretend to offer any sympathy for the late stage cancer patient that McGee helped put in jail. Instead, Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee provided reporters with a series of legalistic justifications for her own complicity.

“It [Ann Musser's arrest] has nothing to do with the dog license. It has nothing to do with a city ordinance."

"[Paying the fee] doesn’t make the warrant go away. We have nothing to do with that. Once a warrant is issued, it is out of our hands.” - Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee to the Springfield Republican

Lost in McGee's excuses are all of the obvious things that she could do immediately to prevent further arrests for dog licensing payments, and that she could have done specifically to ensure that cancer patient Ann Musser was treated with a modicum of human decency. Let's start with the latter, which presents some obvious solutions for those who price human life at somewhere above $5. Musser presented payment to McGee's office after they had sent her case to Holyoke Animal Control Officer Donald Tryon for additional fines and referral to district criminal court. McGee could have contacted Donald Tryon and instructed him to not issue a warrant. If a warrant had already been issued, she could have called the Sheriff's Department and/or the judge who signed to the warrant to have it rescinded. At the very least she could have informed these parties of Musser's medical condition to help ensure that she received proper medical attention during her detainment. None of these things would have cost Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee anything other than a few minutes on the phone. In fact, it would have been to Brenna McGee's benefit to make such an effort, as at this point she would appear to be a reasonable person in a corrupt system, rather than an insensitive monster who delights in the imprisonment of an obviously innocent (and obviously ill) woman.

Finally, McGee could instruct her office to cease referring late pet license payments to Holyoke Animal Control Officer Donald Tryon. This would immediately prevent any further arrests. When McGee claims that arrests for late payments of dog licensing "has nothing to do with the dog license" and "has nothing to do with a city ordinance", McGee is making the tortured argument that because the warrant is for failure to appear, she has no role in the arrests. Here is a quick visual of the process:

    Late payment to Clerk -> 
    Clerk notifies Animal Control -> 
    Animal Control notifies Court -> 
    Court issues warrant for failure to appear

Because the Clerk only performs the first step and not the last step, Brenna McGee would like the public to believe that she plays no substantive role in this process. This is similar to the police claiming that they have no role in issuing warrants, because they simply request warrants from the court.

Speaking to a reporter from Reason Magazine, Brenna McGee would inexplicably attempt to demonize Ann Musser and her husband Ozzie Ercan in a misguided attempt to justify her involvement in Musser's incarceration:

" [Ann Musser] 'and her husband are also repeated offenders'" - Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee to Reason Magazine

In her inteview with the Springfield Republican, Brenna McGee concluded her justifications by bragging about the number of pet owners she has incarcerated while enforcing Holyoke's draconian licensing policy:

McGee said Holyoke has roughly 3,400 dog licensed issued annually. The city dog officer ends up issuing tickets to 300 to 400 dog owners who fail to renew on time, and roughly half of those remain unpaid and are sent to district court.

Hundreds of people are being hauled into court - many through the issue of warrants and inevitably jailed - over licenses for dogs in the City of Holyoke.

The Republican went on to identify several other cities throught Massachusetts that are jailing pet owners over pet license fees.

Wilbraham Town Clerk Beverly Litchfield said she has been town clerk for 20 years, and for many years has been sending warrants to court after people are six months late on their dog license fees.

In some cities, like Wilbraham, the dog licensing fees pay for the animal control officer. In other cities, like Holyoke, when a case goes to the District Court the Clerk's office is able to retain additional fees and fines that are assessed. In either case, the conflicts of interest are readily apparent. The more people fined and arrested, the more money that clerks and animal control offices can stuff into their budgets. Arrangements like these have sparked outrage even when the individuals targetted have been investigated for actual crimes, as in the recent controversy surrounding civl asset forfeiture. That this racket targets people whose only crime is owning a pet only serves to magnify the injustice.

Yet another mom who was arrested in front of her children over a dog license, Sylvia Boffett, spoke truth to power to the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

“You start desensitizing the public by arresting people for minor infractions like that.” - Sylvia Boffett, on her arrest over a lapsed dog license to the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Sylvia Boffett with her dog Cruiser

Arbitrary and aggregious law enforcement has continued to hurt pets and their families. While the dog licensing schemes and the cruel and unusual detentions that follow from them may seem apart from our mission at the Puppycide Database Project, the Kafkaesque situations that Sylvia Boffett, Becky Rehr and Ann Musser were forced into by their city officials and police will strike victims of puppycide as earily familiar: the indifference to suffering, the escalation of innocuous issues using violence and intimidation, the unflinching refusal by officials to apologize or admit fault. The killings of dogs and the arbitrary detention of their owners is part of a larger pattern of abuse. A solution to either problem would necessarily address both by securing the rights of pets and their owners to life and liberty.