Going to the Dogs

Okay. So maybe Sean McGuire is a lawyer with too much time on his hands. Or maybe he's really a man of convictions, fighting his own criminal conviction.

But then again, maybe this is just a story about a man and his dog.

"Come on, Roscoe," McGuire says. "Now, stay with me."

It's a crisp, beautiful weekday morning. McGuire leads his plump dust mop of a Scottish terrier along the grassy southwestern edge of Washington Park. A jogger wheezes by. A squirrel scurries up a tree. A duck crash-lands in the lake.

McGuire slows to a stop.

"Sit!" he says.

Roscoe sits.

McGuire looks to the left, he looks to the right, he looks all the way around, and then he bends over and detaches Roscoe's red leash.

"According to the city," he says, "I just broke the law."

Section 8-16 of the Denver Municipal Code, to be exact. According to Section 8-16, "it shall be unlawful for any owner, possessor or person who keeps any dog, to permit the same dog to run at large." And under that same section, "at large" translates to "not on the premises of the owner" and "not controlled through the use of a leash, cord or chain."

"Ask an animal-control officer," McGuire continues, "and he'll say Roscoe is running at large."

But ask McGuire, and he'll say this: Although Roscoe is not wearing a leash, he's neither running nor at large. He is simply sitting a foot away from his master, sniffing the breeze, thumping his tail, staring quizzically up at McGuire and wondering what the hell is going on.

Roscoe is under control, McGuire says, just as he learned to be in obedience school. Just as he has been on hundreds of walks through central Denver. Just as he was at 7 a.m. on July 9, 1998, when two animal-control officers swooped down on this very spot and slapped McGuire with a $50 ticket for being in violation of Section 8-16.

"What they did to me," he says, "is just an incredible amount of silliness."

Which is why, McGuire concludes as he re-attaches Roscoe's leash, a walk in the park has led all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.

"Roscoe," McGuire says, back at his home now. "It's a great name."

It belonged to a character on the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. When McGuire was presented with a scruffy black puppy about eight years ago as a gift for passing the Colorado bar, he knew exactly what to call him.

"Roscoe," McGuire says. "With an 'e.'"

Upon hearing the magic word, Roscoe with an "e" trots over from his post at the front door and deposits a tennis ball at his master's feet.

His master rolls the ball across the floor, and Roscoe skitters after it, then plops down before the open front door.

McGuire has owned Scotties since he was a kid. Over the years, four different pooches have skittered across the wooden floors of his modest home in the Cory-Merrill neighborhood. Not one of them has had behavioral problems. Certainly not Roscoe.

"I feel completely comfortable with him," says McGuire, a mustachioed, salt-and-pepper-haired 47-year-old. "He can walk through a flock of geese and ducks without bothering them. He even stops three feet before the curb on very busy streets and sits down at the light pole."

Roscoe isn't perfect, however. He's got "a mind of his own at times," McGuire says, and harbors murderous thoughts about the squirrels raiding the trash can in the backyard. But he did graduate from the Terroux Training Kennels obedience program. And usually it takes only one brusque command to bring him in line.

"Heel. Sit. Stay," McGuire says.

It's true that on the morning McGuire was ticketed for violating Section 8-16, Roscoe wasn't wearing a leash. But McGuire had one in his pocket, and when the animal-control officers asked him to harness Roscoe, he did. On his report, an officer even noted that Roscoe was "friendly" and that McGuire was "very cooperative."

But McGuire still was cited.

Afterward, he drove downtown, thumbed through the city's Municipal Code and discovered that violating the leash law is a criminal offense.

"If I were convicted, it could be up to a year in jail or a $999 fine," McGuire says. "If I were convicted, that criminal offense would go on my record."

And the last thing McGuire wanted was a criminal violation on his record. He'd served four and a half years as a state trooper before becoming a lawyer, then worked as a prosecutor in Denver, Arapahoe and Grand counties for three; he's done criminal defense and family law in private practice. McGuire is also a certified public accountant, and now he's pursuing a master's degree in tax law. Being the lawyer that he is, instead of mailing in the $50, McGuire decided to negotiate a deal.

"I've prosecuted 24 jury trials and hundreds of hearings," he says. "I've won probably close to two-thirds. It's not like I don't know what I'm doing."

So McGuire visited Denver County's Environmental Court, a blue-carpet and fluorescent-light-type place where city attorneys and magistrate judges hash out all manner of minor violations such as unkempt lawns, ratty apartments, smoke-belching cars and giant martini-glass sculptures set ablaze on New Year's Eve. And there, amid people with unkempt lawns, ratty apartments, smoky cars and martini-glass sculptures, McGuire approached Assistant City Attorney D. Brett Woods.

Look, McGuire explained. Roscoe was not on a leash, but he wasn't running amok, either. He was simply walking at his master's side under the "heel" command. So how about dismissing the charges?

No, Woods said.

Then how about a deferred prosecution, wherein McGuire would promise not to break the leash law again, and ultimately the charges would be dismissed?


A deferred judgment?


Pleading guilty to a non-criminal charge?


Every time McGuire presented a possible plea bargain, Woods said no, no and no.

"All he said was that if I agreed not to dispute the facts, he'd recommend that I didn't get jail," McGuire recalls. "Now, come on. To me, that was nothing. I knew they don't put people in jail for this. It was nonsense."

Woods says he can't comment on McGuire's case specifically, because it's still pending. But in general, he explains, unless there are extraordinary circumstances, the city does not grant such deals as deferred prosecution and deferred judgments for leash-law violations. If it did, everyone and their dog would want one. "It's just not worth it," Woods says.

Although a leash-law violation is a criminal offense, as are other municipal-ordinance infractions such as spitting on sidewalks and playing your stereo too loud, it is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor, but its own unique category. "All of these can theoretically land you in jail," says Woods, "but they seldom, if ever, do." And since offenders usually are not booked into jail, a leash-law conviction probably wouldn't appear on a rap sheet, either.

McGuire didn't want to take any chances.

"I want a jury trial," he said.

In September 1998, McGuire walked into the courtroom of Denver County Judge Robert Crew, "all ready to go," he remembers. He had cracked open his law books, combed case histories and sliced and diced Section 8-16 into tiny pieces. "I prepared for this like I'd prepare for any criminal trial for any client," he explains. Among his arguments: The city's almost-fifty-year-old leash law is "unconstitutionally vague."

In preparation for trial, McGuire had requested numerous documents, including the background of the animal-control officers who'd cited him, and offered an unusual list of exhibits, including a dog transport cage, a hat and an obedience-course degree. He even listed Roscoe as a potential witness. "That really hacked them off," he says. "But I figured if I could get the jury to see Roscoe for themselves, they would understand." McGuire also filed numerous motions challenging the constitutionality of the leash law. But the judge dismissed them, so as far as the city was concerned, the only issue remaining for consideration at trial was whether Roscoe had been wearing a leash.

When McGuire arrived for his day in court, the judge called him and Woods into his chambers. And there, McGuire contends, the judge told him: "Mr. McGuire, there isn't going to be a jury trial. Even if you find six animal lovers who find you not guilty, I'm going to enter a judgment against you."

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," McGuire recalls. "I had worked as a police officer and a prosecutor and had been in a number of courts on both levels. I had never heard a judge say anything like that. I was dumbfounded. A judge isn't supposed to do that. If they have opinions, they do not express them. And if they are predisposed, they should not be on the case. They don't say things that indicate that they are not impartial."

Crew says he can't comment on the case because it's pending; Woods can't discuss what happened in judge's chambers, either. But according to McGuire, after Crew made the comment about overruling the jury, the judge said he wanted McGuire and Woods to review the facts of the case -- essentially, that Roscoe was not wearing a leash -- and then return to open court, where McGuire would state them for the record.

Which McGuire did.

Before that happened, though, McGuire asked Crew to remove himself from the case, which Crew refused to do. Only then did McGuire state the facts for the record, adding that he was not pleading guilty nor waiving his rights to a jury trial in the future, since he wanted to be able to appeal.

After all that, Crew found McGuire guilty, fined him $100, suspended $75 of that fine and sentenced him to six months' unsupervised probation.

That was small consolation. McGuire felt he had been unfairly treated by the judge, and he still wanted his jury trial.

"I was faced with Hobson's choice," he says. "I had no choice. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't. One thing I've learned is that there's only so much arguing you can do with a judge. You don't say a judge is wrong. They take that personally."

So McGuire appealed.

"I didn't think what I did was a crime," he says. "If I'm walking in a park and my dog is one foot away, that's not my definition of 'at large.' And if I'm going to be convicted of a crime, I have the right to have a jury consider and decide what's 'running at large.'

"You've got to fight a bully when a bully says, 'It's not going to be this way, it's going to be my way,"' he adds. "Not that I'm calling the judge a bully. But you have to respond when you're not treated appropriately."

The Denver district court judge didn't see it that way. In September 1999, Judge Martin Egelhoff denied every one of McGuire's arguments against the leash law and found no evidence of wrongdoing by Crew. In fact, the judge ruled, McGuire had "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently waived his right to a jury trial."

McGuire disagreed, of course. And in October, he asked the Colorado Supreme Court to consider hearing his case.

Although the odds are against him, McGuire is optimistic. "They might decide they do not want to handle an at-large issue, but they might decide it's outrageous for a judge not to give me a day in court," he says. "We'll just have to see. I know a lot of people think I'm going overboard, but if you're going to stand up for what you believe, you have to put your money where your mouth is."

Fortunately for McGuire, it hasn't been all that much money -- since he's done all the research and argued the case himself, he figures he's only had to lay out a few hundred dollars. But as for what the city's spent, he can only speculate.

"I can't believe how much energy the city attorney is putting into this case," he says. "There's been no cheap shots, but he's fought me every step of the way. And this thing has taken hours and hours and hours. I don't know if he's just bored or if he's been stuck down there in dog court a while. Maybe he just thinks it's a challenge. But if I had to hire an attorney, it would have cost me $10,000 already."

Woods has yet to bust out a calculator to determine Denver's costs. But no matter what the bottom line may be, Woods says, McGuire has every right to take the case as far as he can. And every step of the way, Woods adds, "I have to file a response."

McGuire insists he's trying to prove a legitimate point, not waste the city's time and money.

"I'm not an anarchist," he says. "I arrested people and prosecuted people for violating the law. And I do think there needs to be a law keeping dogs under control. Lots of dogs cannot be controlled without a leash. I don't want Wash Park to be a no-leash zone, either. There are little kids and ducks and geese there. But if a person walks a dog down the street, and his dog is under control without a leash, I think that ought to be fine and dandy. The way it is now, if my dog was in a transport carrier, in my car, with all the windows locked, and he was not on a leash, I'd be in violation of the law, the way the city interprets it. You've got to use common sense."

While McGuire waits to hear from the state Supreme Court, he continues his morning routine. When Roscoe wakes up and skitters across the floor in anticipation of a walk, McGuire takes him on a forty-minute circle around the neighborhood.

"If you're asking me whether or not I use a leash, I'm not going to say," McGuire says. "I'm not going to admit to any potential crime. Take that the way you want to."

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Harrison Fletcher

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