Expired dog license lands woman in cuffs

Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When police knocked on Sylvia Buzzell’s door in Turners Falls around 10 p.m. March 8, they informed her they had a warrant for her arrest, though they weren’t sure what for, according to the single mother of two children, who were at home with her at the time.

It turned out she had failed to renew a dog license in Belchertown, where she used to live, and then didn’t show up in court when summoned to appear. She says in her move in July from Belchertown to Turners Falls, she may have missed some mail — but she questions being arrested for such a minor, non-criminal infraction.

Police led her away in handcuffs for processing and released her later that night when her sister posted $40 bail. The next day, Buzzell came to the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, where the warrant had been issued and the judge dismissed the charges.

The incident “terrified my children,” ages 14 and 10, Buzzell said. “I was embarrassed by the whole situation. I’m the kind of person who always does the right thing.”

According to Belchertown Town Clerk William Barnett, notices are sent out at the beginning of each year to owners of the approximately 3,100 dogs in Belchertown reminding them it is time to renew their $8 dog licenses. Later, second and third notices with attendant late fines go out from the animal control officer. Residents who don’t respond are referred to the courts in a criminal complaint for violating a municipal ordinance.

At that point, according to Randall Smith, assistant clerk magistrate at Eastern Hampshire District Court, a summons goes out to appear for a show cause hearing. If the person doesn’t respond, a second summons usually goes out before an arrest warrant is sought.

“Nobody is arrested for not having their dog licensed,” Smith said. “They are arrested for not showing up in court.”

He said not many towns in Hampshire County initiate criminal complaints for failure to license a dog, though Belchertown and Ware do. “Other than that, I can’t say for sure,” Smith said.

Phone calls to Anna Fenton, the Belchertown animal control officer, were not returned.

Buzzell, who had lived in Belchertown for about three years until she moved to Turners Falls last summer, forgot to renew the license for her dog, Cruiser, last year. She said she does not recall receiving any notices from the town or the courts before she left Belchertown last July.

“I had a million things going on. I may have (received a notice), but knowing that I was going to be moving, it was not on my priorities list,” she said.

Apparently, the Montague police (Turners Falls is part of Montague) on patrol ran her automobile license plates through a database because she had parked in a playground parking lot due to a snow-related street-parking ban near her home. When the arrest warrant came up, they traced it to her home, and then went there to bring her in for booking.

Buzzell said she believes she is owed an apology for the stress the arrest put on her family.

“My kids were really upset, it really traumatized them. My family and I have been through so much,” she said. “My children and I suffer from PTSD. We’ve spent the last year getting everybody back on track, but this matter of the police showing up and taking me from our home has really set us back.”

She said intends to get a license in Turners Falls for her beagle, who has been part of the family for about nine years now. But she maintains the way her lapse was brought to her attention was heavy-handed and unjustified.

“You start desensitizing the public by arresting people for minor infractions like that,” she said.


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