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Jogger cleared of cruelty charge after using Mace on advancing dog / June 07, 2018
A Virgilina woman jogging along the roadside when she pepper sprayed an approaching dog got her day in court Tuesday after being charged with cruelty to animals.

It took General District Judge William Watson roughly an hour to declare her not guilty after hearing evidence that included a cell phone recording of a conversation between the defendant and an animal control officer — who ordered the woman not to run by the home where the dog lived, citing a protective order taken out by the dog’s owner.

Lauren Bryan was running alone along Aaron’s Creek Road in early March when a five-month-old Pit Bull-Shar Pei mix, “Horace,” chased after her after breaking off of its chain. Bryan, who had encountered the dog on two previous occasions while out running on the road, this time sprayed it four times with Mace to get it to break off the pursuit.

The next day, she received a visit from Halifax County Animal Control. After speaking to officer Catherine Martinette about the incident, Bryan found herself on the receiving end of a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge.

Represented in court by Halifax attorney John Greenbacker, Bryan testified Tuesday that she did not feel directly threatened by the dog, but she was fearful that it might get into the road and cause oncoming vehicles to swerve in her direction as she was out jogging.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Will Hamilton argued that Bryan was obligated to stop running when the dog approached, and could not justify spraying the animal because it was not behaving aggressively toward her.

Greenbacker countered that the dog was a threat to Bryan’s safety because of its unpredictable behavior, and that Mace is too benign to truly be considered cruel behavior towards the animal.

The case presented Watson with the question of whether pedestrians have the expectation that they can use roadways without being bothered by animals, especially those that stray from their own properties.

“They [pedestrians and bicyclists] have to yield the right-of-way to the dog?” Watson asked Hamilton.

On the stand, Martinette was asked by Greenbacker if she had ever told Bryan that Horace, the pit bull mix, had more right to the roadway than she did. Martinette’s response to the question was inconclusive.

Greenbacker then played a snippet of a cell phone recording that Bryan had made of her conversation with Martinette after the animal control officer showed up to question her about the incident.

Telling Bryan that she could not run by the home where the dog lived, Martinette was heard on the recording to say, “They do in this county” when Bryan asked if the dog had as much right to the road as she did.

Halifax County has no leash law than requires dog owners to keep their animals contained on their property.

Greenbacker played back several portions of the cell phone recording in court, after first asking Martinette about her recollection of the conversation with Bryan prior to filing the cruelty charge. In one of the recorded exchanges, Martinette was heard telling Bryan that a protective order had been taken out that barred her from running on the road past the dog owner’s property.

Horace’s owner, Carly Simpson, also testified in the case. She recounted two prior instances when Bryan or her husband, Seamus, also an avid long-distance runner, had come into contact with the puppy after it ran out into the road in pursuit of Ms. Bryan.

The first time, Simpson said, Ms. Bryan led the dog back to its owner by its collar. All parties concerned agreed that the dog wasn’t being confrontational or aggressive.

The second encounter was described by Bryan and her husband, Seamus, during their turns on the witness stand. In the second incident, the dog followed Bryan as she jogged all the way to U.S. 58. This time, she testified, she began to fear that its presence would cause her harm.

Horace and a second dog that briefly joined the chase before returning home were running “in between my legs” and weaving into traffic, Bryan told the court.

“There were vehicles actually running off the road,” she said, describing her fear the dog would cause a car to swerve and strike her.

Seamus Bryan testified that he drove out to help, caught the dog and carried it back to its home in his pickup truck. He said it was difficult to catch the animal and that it nipped his hand without breaking the skin when he did lay hands on it.

On the third and final encounter in early March, Bryan said she was once again running past the Simpson home when the dog came out to meet her. She sprayed the dog’s face with Mace, which caused it to retreat, but the animal returned three more times before finally breaking away.

This time, Bryan and Simpson had a heated exchange, and the owner took the dog inside to wash out its eyes. Before Bryan resumed her run, Simpson testified, she “flipped me the bird” and hurled an expletive.

According to the prosecution, Simpson first called the Sheriff’s Office on March 5 to complain about Bryan after a run-in between the jogger and dog. Simpson complained to the Sheriff’s Office that Bryan had threatened to harm Horace if he kept chasing after her. The dog owner also alleged that Bryan had threatened a minor living at her home.

This exchange led to the issuance of a protective order against Bryan, although the order was not a major point of discussion at her trial in General District Court. Bryan was not asked if she was aware that the order existed.

On May 9, according to prosecution records, Simpson contacted dispatch again, this time to complain about her dog being pepper sprayed. Animal Control determined that the puppy was being playful and curious, not aggressive, and after an investigation charged Bryan with a single misdemeanor count.

Commenting on the case after Bryan was found not guilty, Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin said her office has duty to determine if a “good faith basis” exists for prosecuting criminal offenses.

“The facts presented to my office prior to the trial indicated the puppy was not aggressive toward the defendant, that the defendant appeared to be hostile toward the puppy’s owners, and that she had used pepper spray on the puppy without appropriate justification. In this case, more than a good faith basis existed to believe that the defendant had violated the statute.

“Of course, the court makes a decision based on the evidence presented in court, including new information which is not always available to the Commonwealth prior to the trial,” Martin added.

She said she accepts the judge’s ruling in favor of the defendant.

After hearing the evidence, Watson told the courtroom audience that his decision was swayed by evidence that Bryan had sought to return the dog to its owner on prior occasions before resorting to pepper spray as she was out running. He also offered support for Greenbacker’s contention that Mace does not leave lasting injuries and is a relatively benign way to deter a dog from approaching someone.

Animal cruelty crimes are more extreme than what the evidence suggested in this instance, Watson observed.

“I’ve seen horrific cases involving animals,” Watson said, “Things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”

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Let me get this right. The lady was not supposed to run by the dogs house on a public road funded in part by her tax dollars? Sounds like the inmates are running the asylum.

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