Local News

Courts can count dogs as deadly weapons, law experts say

Posted March 27, 2009 2:53 p.m. EDT
Updated March 28, 2009 9:54 a.m. EDT

— Law experts say that the city may be successful in charging a Raleigh man with assault with a deadly weapon because his two pit bulls he was keeping attacked a 6-year-old boy last week.

Police said that Anthony Whitfield, 23, of 816 Postell St., was caring for two pit bulls that attacked Isaiah Hardy as he played in the street on Friday, March 20. The boy suffered 42 lacerations and was hospitalized for three days.

Initially, police cited Whitfield for allowing the dog to run at large. That is a city code violation that carries a fine at most.

On Thursday, though, police said they had gathered enough evidence to upgrade the charges against Whitfield to assault with a deadly weapon. A conviction carries up to eight years in prison.

Police usually file that charge when a knife, gun or even a car is used in an attack, but courts have across the country have given a broad definition to the term "deadly weapon," said Irv Joyner, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law.

In 2005, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that a vicious animal attacking a person can qualify as assault with a deadly weapon, he said.

"There is sufficient basis to pursue that charge," Joyner said. "If the animal by its nature is vicious or by its training is vicious or is directed to attack, that would be sufficient, even if there's no prior history" of violence with the animal.

According to the arrest warrants, Whitfield's dogs earlier had gotten loose and killed a cat. On the day of Isaiah's attack, Whitfield's brother Alexis said, the dogs somehow slipped out of the back yard.

Raleigh defense attorney Bob Hensley said he thinks the charge of assault with a deadly weapon could stand up in court but doubts that Whitfield will ultimately be convicted of it.

"Given the injuries the little boy suffered, I think it's a valid charge," Hensley said. However, he sees the upgraded charge as "a bargaining tactic."

"If you set the bar high, then the defendant wants to come and plea bargain," Hensley said.

Joyner said he sees a nationwide trend of courts finding a basis for making dog attacks a felony.

"Dog owners beware: The one free bite notion is gone," he said.