Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 47
 
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
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Assemblyman Introduces “Congo’s Law”

Matthew Hersh

As a Township family celebrated the homecoming of their 2-year-old German shepherd, who was impounded in June after severely injuring a landscaper, a bill was introduced yesterday in the state Assembly as part of a direct response to that case, addressing perceived faults in state laws regarding vicious or potentially dangerous dogs.

The bill, “Congo’s Law,” was named after the Princeton Township German shepherd and was introduced by Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union) to address state code that Mr. Cohen described as “out of date.

“We needed to have the legislation modernized, but the situation with Congo brought it to the forefront,” Mr. Cohen told Town Topics Monday following the bill’s introduction.

Congo, whose owners are Princeton Township residents Guy and Elizabeth James, was released from impoundment at SAVE last Thursday, following an order from a Mercer County Superior Court judge that the dog would be allowed to return home while the case is appealed in Superior Court. Congo was deemed vicious and ordered euthanized by municipal court Judge Russell Annich Jr. following a June 5 attack against one of the James’ landscapers, Giovanni Rivera of Trenton.

Mr. Rivera was hospitalized for injuries incurred in the attack and received a $250,000 settlement that also covered medical expenses.

Central to the issue, however, was whether the dog attacked independently, or was aroused when perceiving a threat to its owner. By all accounts, when Mr. Rivera and a landscaping crew came on to the James’ Stuart Road property, a chaotic scene ensued. The Jameses insist that Congo was set off when Mr. Rivera, fearing the dog, sought refuge behind Ms. James, allegedly causing her to fall to the ground, which, they claim, provoked Congo’s subsequent attack. Judge Annich, the municipal prosecutor, and the municipal animal control officer, however, all viewed Congo’s actions as unprovoked.

While Congo is not technically considered “potentially dangerous,” animal control officer Mark Johnson said Thursday that the owners would have to follow guidelines that go along with that determination while the appeal process continues, including Congo’s not being allowed to leave the residence without a muzzle, and being kept in a fenced area when outdoors.

At the heart of the matter was the issue of provocation, said Assemblyman Cohen, who has sponsored other animal-related legislation. He pointed out that the current state law does not properly address episodes like the one involving Congo, and that his bill would allow provocation to be taken into consideration. Congo’s Law also says that while a dog can be deemed “potentially dangerous,” that determination would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Mr. Cohen’s bill also does away with tattooing, a method of demarcation for dogs deemed dangerous: “It’s like a scarlet A. I mean, the tattooing is absurd.

“Basically, the entire law needs to be reviewed,” according to Mr. Cohen, himself a dog owner, who said he used to fear dogs typically viewed as “attack dogs.” Mr. Cohen said the law, with anticipated support, could go into effect by January

The proposed bill also places a presumption against euthanasia. Mr. Cohen, who introduced another bill, still pending, to clarify criminal penalties after dog-fighting charges were brought against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, said his new bill would “not have any impact on trained attack dogs or unleashed dogs that attack.”

Other changes to current state law include placing the decision to impound a dog with the courts, rather than animal control; eliminating the statute requiring the owner of a potentially dangerous dog to obtain liability insurance; and providing a six-month statute of limitations for animal control officers to seize and impound allegedly vicious or potentially dangerous dogs.

Mr. James said he and his family were “ecstatic” to have Congo back home. The Jameses have another German shepherd, Lucia, and four shepherd pups, which are currently being trained in Colorado. On the publicity of the case and the legislation now pending in the Assembly, Mr. James said it is “imperative for us to educate and inform the public. There are cases where it’s an unfortunate and unintentional provocation or that it’s an intentional and malicious act, but we have been to hell and back with all this.”

Mr. James said his family would start a not-for-profit organization aiming to help dog owners seek advice in similar situations: “My family and I have a responsibility to protect homeowners and their pets.”

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