Pit bull service-dog ban in Denver violates federal law, says attorney suing city

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As we noted in our March post "Pit bull ban: Disabled Vietnam, Gulf War vets sue Denver and Aurora for discriminating against their service dogs," the Animal Law Center complaint alleges that banning pit bulls for use as service dogs violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although reports suggest that Aurora may be willing to create a service-dog exception for pit bulls, Edwards isn't sure at this point whether that's the case or not. But she sees no ambiguity in this week's 9-4 vote in Denver City Council to forbid use of pit bulls as service dogs. And in her view, "it's completely contrary to what they can do."

Councilman Charlie Brown disagrees, arguing that Denver has a right to take this action as a home-rule city. But in Edwards's view, "that's inapplicable here. This is a federal matter. It would be akin to Denver saying women don't have a right to vote on certain issues, and they don't care about what the federal government has to say about that, because they're asserting home rule. And they can't do that. Home rule is more applicable when you're looking at a matter of statewide or local concern, but this is an ADA discrimination case -- and they're choosing to discriminate against disabled people."

Edwards notes that the ADA doesn't restrict service dogs on the basis of breed -- a position reemphasized by the agency in July. "The clarification strengthened our position and our case," she believes.

Could some locals pretend their pit bull is a service dog to get around the overall ban in Denver -- a danger raised by some council members? "That's very convenient for them to say," Edwards maintains, "but it's a felony to say your dog is a service dog when it's not. So this isn't a slippery slope. I think the slippery slope would be people lying about their dog being a service dog, because eventually, they're going to get caught. So I find that to be nothing more than an excuse."

Moreover, Edwards points out that the Denver policy doesn't only impact residents.

"What if there's a grandfather who lives outside Denver and his grandson would like to go to a baseball game?" she asks. "If he has a pit bull that's a service dog, can he not take his grandson to the game and a restaurant afterward? Can he not contribute to getting Denver out of its budget deficit? And that brings up another point. Why would Denver want to fight something like this so zealously and waste taxpayer money they don't have?

"Something else that's very disappointing is the fact that Denver's historically led the way with ADA issues. It's one of the most accessible cities in the country, and because of that, many ADA conventions and seminars on the national level are held here -- and that happens because Denver is put on a pedestal in regard to the way they handle ADA issues. So how is this going to look? I think it gives a black eye to the City of Denver in regard to their treatment of disabled persons. It really sets them back a lot."

Right now, the Animal Law Center suit "is stayed," Edwards says, "and we're waiting for some litigation issues to be resolved. But as soon as the case resumes, we intend to prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law. Our goal is to seek a permanent measure to ensure that people have the right to the service dog of their choosing and not be discriminated against, so they can feel safe in Colorado, safe in Denver, and safe traveling through Denver."

Page down to read the lawsuit and see an Animal Law Center release about recent actions in Denver and Aurora:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts