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When does enforcement of lapsed licenses go too far?



At first glance, you'd be hard-pressed to picture him at the center of a standoff between a government and a heretofore government-supporting citizen. He's brown and curly, sweet and goofy. He's a Labradoodle—or, as my Poodlephobe friend calls him, a "Poorador"—named Bo.

It was Bo who greeted the pet census taker at the front door last March, wagging his tail and sniffing her pockets for treats. I agreed to answer the census taker's questions. Why not help the local government get a handle on the pet scene here in Missoula?

I told her our animals were neutered and up-to-date on their vaccinations. When she asked if the dogs were licensed, I hesitated and said that I thought so. In truth, I wasn't sure—I knew we had gotten our older dog licensed when we adopted her from Animal Control many years prior but couldn't recall if that was an annual or lifetime license. Nor could I recall if we had licensed Bo in the two years we had owned him. In any case, the census taker thanked me and went on her way.

Roughly 10 days later, we received a letter from Animal Control noting that neither dog had a current license. I felt duped and a bit used. I had provided the information in good faith, in a spirit of cooperation, and that information had been used against me. I did not purchase a license.

A couple weeks later we received a second letter, the language still polite but the tone decidedly more authoritarian. We were in violation of the ordinance, and failure to license the dogs would result in an officer being "dispatched" to our residence to issue citations that carried up to $95 in fines. Now feeling a bit bullied as well as bamboozled, I once again declined to purchase licenses.

We didn't hear from Animal Control again and pretty much forgot about the whole thing. Shortly after the new year, I received a sternly worded third letter. This one was in all caps: "THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING! ... IF I HAVE TO RETURN TO THIS ADDRESS, I WILL BE ISSUING A CITATION."


Now having childhood flashbacks (Dad: "If I have to pull this car over, I will be using my belt!"), I figured it had gone far enough. I set up a meeting with Animal Control head honcho Jeff Darrah.

The morning of the meeting, I laced my coffee with a little extra resolve and headed into Darrah's modest office at the Animal Control facility out past the airport. I had given plenty of thought to the matter and had established what I felt to be a reasonable position: I believe Animal Control is a legitimate and necessary agency. I believe dog owners should bear a larger share of dog-control costs, and I realize licenses accomplish just that. Paradoxically, I feel mandatory annual dog licenses—more from the standpoint of personal liberty than those of cost and convenience—seem like a government overreach. Yes, dogs become part of the community when they're outside, but our dogs feel like family, and thus mandatory licensing represents a reach past our doorstep and into our personal lives. And finally, regardless of the above, I believe deception and bullying should be absent from any government agency's quiver of fund-collecting tools.

Darrah is an eminently likeable and level-headed guy. He explained his agency is tasked with keeping itself out of the red, financially, and that funding from property taxes only goes so far. If all dog owners purchased licenses (of the estimated 30,000 dogs in the county, only half are licensed), he said, they could cut the current annual cost of $20 in half.

He agreed the final letter we received was poorly constructed in tone and content and said he would instruct the officer responsible for it to adopt a more civil approach. On the topic of deception, though, he had an interesting counterpoint: hadn't I, by saying I thought the dogs were licensed, deceived the census taker? If I had said they weren't licensed, he told me, she would have produced the necessary paperwork then and there. I conceded this point but explained I would still have felt deceived (though to a lesser degree). After all, she had presented herself as a census taker, not an ordinance enforcer, and I had agreed to speak with her in that context.

If I was in his position, he asked, what would I do? How would I compel 15,000 owners of unlicensed dogs to take the action required of them by ordinance?

I didn't have an answer for him and still don't. I went ahead and made Bo street legal, feeling in equal portions the satisfaction of a citizen completing a civic duty and the resentment of an individual coerced by a government he supports.


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