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OTTUMWA — City officials in Ottumwa are watching a case before the Iowa Supreme Court that could mean changes for a local law.

Both Ottumwa and Des Moines have dangerous animal ordinances and, under some circumstances, both cities may declare dogs to be dangerous. The Des Moines city code includes pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire terriers as potentially dangerous animals. Ottumwa’s code prohibits pit bulls or crossbreeds.

The Des Moines case focuses on Pinky, a dog that injured a neighbor’s cat in 2016. The city sought to have Pinky destroyed, but the Iowa Court of Appeals found the city’s ordinance too vague to be constitutional. The case is now before the Iowa Supreme Court.

Joni Keith, Ottumwa’s city attorney, said Friday she will watch the outcome closely to see whether it will require Ottumwa to make changes. Since district courts are bound by the state supreme court’s decision, it could have far-reaching effects.

Keith said city codes need to strike a difficult balance between being specific enough to be enforced but flexible enough to deal with a wide range of events. A code section that’s too specific may lead the court to conclude the circumstances of a case aren’t included. Too broad, and the code may be unenforceable.

“It’s a very difficult balance with those,” Keith said.

Ottumwa’s ordinance has not bee challenged in court, but some have challenged citations for having a pit bull within city limits. The city’s standard approach in those cases is to offer a DNA test and a deal.

If the test shows the dog is not a pit bull, the city asks the court to dismiss the case with expenses charged to it. If the test shows the dog is a pit bull, the owner pleads guilty and pays the costs.

“I’ve had a couple people take advantage of that,” Keith said. “That’s always taken care of the issue.”

Of course, the dog’s owner is not required to accept the deal. In such cases, including one coming up in a couple weeks, it goes to court complete with testimony from expert witnesses.

Briefs in the Des Moines case were submitted Tuesday. The two sides will not give oral arguments, and there is not a specific timeline for the court’s decision.

Ottumwa will be watching, though. And the results could be important for the city and for dog owners.


Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.