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Police power key to Katrina dog case

If Humane Society has it, a Louisiana couple loses.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published January 30, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG — The long and twisted saga over two dogs rescued after Hurricane Katrina may boil down to one simple question:


Does the Humane Society of Pinellas have “police power?’’

If it does, the two dogs — a shepherd mix and a St. Bernard — were properly adopted and should not be returned to the original owners in Louisiana, one side maintains.

If the Humane Society does not have police power, the dogs may have to be returned to their original owners, Steven and Dorreen Couture of St. Bernard Parish, La.

Now, it’s up to a Pinellas County judge to decide.

The Coutures filed suit last June against Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, Hillsborough Prosecutor Pam Bondi and the Humane Society of Pinellas after their two dogs were displaced following the hurricane and later adopted out by the Humane Society. Rineker adopted the shepherd mix, Bondi the St. Bernard. Both adoptions took place in October 2005.

Pinellas County Judge Henry Andringa is expected to rule on the pretrial motion to dismiss the Coutures’ claim in the coming days. The trial has been scheduled to begin the week of April 16.

The issue of police power was argued by Rineker’s attorney, Jeff Brown, and supported by attorneys for Bondi and the Humane Society. Brown said the dogs are subject to the police power of the state and can be destroyed or otherwise dealt with if necessary for the protection of its citizens.

He said that county ordinance gives the Humane Society, a nonprofit humane organization, police powers.

“It is under these public policy considerations that humane shelters are granted authority, under state regulation, to make decisions regarding animal impoundment, adoption and destruction,” Brown wrote.

An attorney for the Pinellas County and a regional director for the Humane Society of the U.S. question whether the police power exists.

“Police power only applies to law enforcement agencies or agents authorized to protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens,” said county attorney Michelle Wallace. She added the Humane Society “does not operate on the behest of Pinellas County.”

Laura Bevan, southeast regional director for the Humane Society of the U.S., which consists of seven states, including Florida, said: “The Humane Society may have the ability to investigate animal cruelty in their county, but they really don’t have police power. If that’s the argument, I don’t understand it.”

   Jim Thompson Sr., the attorney representing the Humane Society, stands behind the argument that the Humane Society has police power. He said the Humane Society “is licensed by the county and are bound by county statutes.

I don’t back down from our argument a bit that police power entitles us to do what we did.”

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.