Beltsville woman sues Prince George’s Co. over pit bull ban

A Beltsville, Maryland, woman’s dogs were taken away by Prince George’s County authorities in July; to get them back, she had to negotiate a process her lawyer compared to the Salem witch trials. Now, she’s suing to get the county’s 25-year-old ban on pit bulls overturned.

Denise Venero’s two emotional support dogs, Mimi and Bella, escaped from her yard in July and got into a fight with a neighbor’s dog. Venero took responsibility, paid the resulting fines and improved the fence around her yard. But the county tried to seize her dogs anyway, arguing that they were pit bulls that violated county law.

For 16 days, they sat in a county kennel, where they got sick; then they had to spend another two weeks in another county.

County law identifies three breeds of dogs that are considered illegal pit bulls: Staffordshire Terriers, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, or “dogs that exhibit the characteristics of a pit bull more than any other breed of dog.”

“Everything is just very subjective at this point,” said Venero. “They don’t have a criteria of how they go about these evaluations.”

Venero has documentation that shows Bella’s breed is listed as “lab mix.” She also knows Mimi’s mother was an American bull dog; the father, a Yorkie Havanese. Venero offered to provide DNA evidence showing her dogs weren’t in the banned breeds, but says she was told the county doesn’t use DNA to make that determination.

“They’re saying, ‘we visually identify’ the dogs,” said Richard Rosenthal, Venero’s lawyer. “An animal control officer looks at the dog and depending on how he feels that day he’ll determine whether it is or is not.”

He added that saying “’By looking at a dog I can tell you what breed it is’ is roughly the same as trying to define what makes a witch,” he argued.

Last month, Venero had a hearing before the Prince George’s County Commission for Animal Control, which ruled that she was not guilty of violating the county’s dangerous animal statutes, or the law prohibiting pit bulls.

But by then, she had filed a federal lawsuit against the county that seeks to overturn the law. And even though she got her dogs back, she isn’t dropping the case.

“There’s so many dog owners that are potentially at danger of this,” she said. “This is a big issue that needs to be looked at even further. It’s been going on for 25 years and it needs to change now.”

“We want actual standards,” Rosenthal said. “We want something with science behind it.”

The lawsuit argues in part that the law is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, since the dogs have been certified as emotional support animals by a medical professional.

“The county takes the position that their law doesn’t provide an exception” under that law, said Rosenthal. The lawsuit argues otherwise.

Court records show that both sides have entered into settlement negotiations. Neither Venero nor Rosenthal would comment on anything related to those talks. The county declined all comment.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up