BY JOHN WASHINGTON / APRIL 18, 2019
This article will appear in the print edition of the Gainesville Sun on April 21, 2019. The text was provided by the author.
I recently experienced a galling County Commission meeting that I won’t soon forget. On April 9, I was visiting Gainesville before returning to Los Angeles, where I now live and practice civil rights and human rights law.
Some things about my childhood home became painfully clear that day.
First, Alachua County is stained by racially problematic and abusive enforcement of its animal laws.
Second, the County knows it and hopes to divert responsibility and focus.
For the past two and a half years, every single person the County has prosecuted as purportedly statutorily “unfit” to own animals has been African American. Monroe Lee is one.
I first met Lee, a colorful, energetic man, when I was back in Gainesville for Thanksgiving. I won’t repeat his story in detail. He’s told it to Commissioners himself twelve times over the past year while begging to have his dogs and birds returned to him.
But the gist is this:
Lee cares for his therapy animals deeply. Lee is disabled and travels to nursing homes to share his pets with the elderly and infirm.
The County Commission has banned Lee from owning or possessing any pet for the rest of his life, after being unable to care for his pets while unexpectedly hospitalized.
More than a year ago, a life-threatening medical emergency hospitalized Lee, separating him from his animals. He convinced Shands Hospital to ask Alachua County Animal Services to take care of his animals until he could be released. For a day, Animal Services left Lee’s animals unevaluated and exposed to a heavy thunderstorm. Only after Lee threatened to remove his own IVs to retrieve his animals did Animal Services – more than 60 hours after his hospitalization – finally collect his pets, including the carcass of his bird, killed during the thunderstorm.
Once released, Lee immediately attempted to retrieve his animals and return them to their home with him in Taylor County. For three weeks, Animal Services brushed Lee aside and put him off. Lee filed a pro se civil rights law suit to force the County to return his animals. A few days after learning of this, the County filed a retaliatory petition asserting Lee had cruelly treated his pets. Had the County actually believed that, it was required by law to have filed a petition well before Lee filed his suit. It hadn’t.
Lee tried to defend himself. He couldn’t afford an attorney, and none is provided by the County in these proceedings. He tried to introduce evidence in his defense, including Shands testimony, but being untrained in law, he failed in technicalities. This meant that the County lawyers could proceed as if Lee’s evidence didn’t exist. The Court ruled that the animals had been unreasonably cared for. Pursuant to the County’s request, the Court allowed the County to separate Lee from his birds and dogs and banned him from having any pet for the rest of his life.
The County ensured there was no record of the testimony and proceedings. As the county attorney who prosecuted Lee brazenly said, the County prefers to avoid records and transcripts of these prosecutions as “risk management,” ensuring neither appellate courts nor the public can review what happened.
On April 9, some Commissioners appeared to understand Lee has been treated unfairly. Yet they showed an unawareness or appalling disingenuousness.
“We had nothing to do with it,” the Commission Chair said to Lee. “It was beyond our control.”
He stated: “We want to help you but we can’t help you because there’s been a legal ruling,” adding “I can’t do anything because of the Court. We have a separation of powers.”
Commissioners should know better. The County Attorney does.
No Court ordered the County do anything. The County was given Lee’s pets “to be disposed of as Alachua County sees fit.” For a year Lee has returned to fight for his pets at the Commission, and he clearly cares for them immensely. The County could take note and agree it is no longer equitable to keep Lee from his pets. Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b)(5) allows this approach without liability or concession.
The County brought this case. It received the order its lawyers pushed. It brought to heel an indigent, self-represented man unable to introduce evidence. Even now, the Commission is fighting Lee’s appeal – most recently, opposing his attempt to establish a record of the case.
If the Commissioners had any genuine concerns about Lee or his animals, they could easily be addressed.
John Washington is a Gainesville native who attended Baby Gator Preschool, J.J. Finley Elementary School, P.K. Yonge Laboratory Research School, Lincoln Middle School, Eastside High School and the University of Florida. He is a 2016 New York University Law School graduate who practices civil rights law and human rights law in Los Angeles, California. He also teaches a civil rights law clinic at the University of California at Irvine Law School.