The Suncoast Animal League's attempt to gain custody of more than 100 dogs that it confiscated in April hit a legal snag last week when a judge determined the organization didn't have the legal authority to take the dogs.
Pinellas County Judge Myra Scott McNary ordered Suncoast director Rick Chaboudy to return 60 of the healthiest dogs taken from Teresita Hughes' home. Once the dogs are returned, Hughes' home must be open to inspection once a week by county animal services or the local humane society, McNary ordered.
Hughes still is awaiting word from the State Attorney's Office on whether she will face criminal animal neglect charges.
David Parry, Hughes' attorney, said the case is about property rights.
"There are few circumstances when the government or anyone has the right to come into our homes and take things," Parry said. "It's not about whether one disagrees or agrees with the function of Suncoast or any other nonprofit organization.
"The issue is, we all have laws that we are required to follow and the way everyone is protected is everyone playing by the same set of rules."
But Chaboudy's former attorney said last week that the longtime animal welfare worker has the authority to confiscate animals and plans to file papers with the court seeking an emergency hearing on the issue.
"He's been a humane officer since 1989 and the statute does not provide that it's ever revoked or expired," said Jennifer Dietz of Tampa's Animal Law Attorneys.
This is the second time that Chaboudy has been connected to a legal custody battle involving animals. While working with the Humane Society in 2005, Chaboudy brought 288 animals back from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
Steven and Dorreen Couture tracked their dogs to the Humane Society in 2006, several months after their St. Bernard and shepherd mix had been adopted out. They met resistance in getting their dogs back so they sued.
After a year of legal wrangling, national attention and a local judge ruling that the animals were property, the Coutures' dogs were returned.
In April, Chaboudy and the Suncoast Animal League had the Pinellas Sheriff's Office accompany them to Hughes' home in East Lake after receiving complaints about the deplorable living conditions of the dogs there.
The league took possession of 120 Pomeranians, Yorkshire terriers and Maltese and went to court to gain custody of them.
"On April 7, when we walked in the house, we made a commitment to the animals and that commitment grows stronger and stronger each day and we are going to fight for each and every one of them," Chaboudy said.
But in court last week, Parry pointed to the state law that says that those appointed to seize animals after complaints of neglect "must have the approval of the mayor of the city in which the society or association exists."
The law also says if the society or association works outside that city, the appointment must be approved by a judge and approved by the county commission.
On Jan. 29, County Judge Paul A. Levine signed a resolution to make Chaboudy a humane officer. But no such action was taken by a local mayor or the county.
All acknowledge that Chaboudy had the authority when he was with the Humane Society of Pinellas, where he worked for 20 years. But whether the authority continued once he started the Suncoast Animal League is murky.
"We have given that to the lawyer who represents animal services and she is reviewing it," said Jim Bennett, Pinellas County's attorney.
Dietz said the law covers only those who work for county animal control, not those working outside of the county's authority.
Parry said her arguments are flawed. "The judge has already ruled and it's pretty clear what the statute requires you to do and it applies to every organization," he said.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]