Parks Department Fined for Failure to Display Leash Rules

Dog owners claimed victory over New York City on Tuesday when an appellate panel ordered the parks department to pay $5,000 for ignoring a 2004 court order to post signs regarding leash rules in Riverside Park.

The court found that the department did not begin to post the required signs until 2010. The signs were meant to alert parkgoers to just where and when they could have their dogs off the leash. Dogs are not allowed to be off leash within a five-block radius of the park’s dog runs at any time.

The nearly seven-year delay led to a sharp decision from five judges in the First Department of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

“Compliance with court orders is essential to the integrity of our judicial system and thus, litigants must not be allowed to ‘ignore court orders with impunity,’” they wrote, declaring the parks department’s conduct “frivolous.” (Read the opinion.) Their decision overturned a 2011 ruling by a State Supreme Court justice, O. Peter Sherwood, that said the city did not have to pay a fine.

Despite the absence of signs, the leash law was enforced and dog owners were fined without a posted notice, said David F. Dobbins, a lawyer for a group of dog owners who use the park.

Mr. Dobbins, 84, has long crusaded against the park’s leash rules. He is something of an unlikely champion for the cause of leash freedom, since his Doberman, Anteia, was fatally struck by a car in Riverside Park while chasing a squirrel while off leash two years ago. His current dog, Jesse, lacks the confidence to be without a leash, Mr. Dobbins said.

Mr. Dobbins fought the rule, which was enacted in 1999, that made the five-block restrictions effective round-the-clock rather than only between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. He lost that battle, but the court order that the city must post 20 signs in the park announcing the rule became his consolation prize.

Mr. Dobbins said the $5,000 fine was a drop in the bucket for a department with a $338 million operating budget for the 2013 fiscal year. And the fine will be paid to the state Department of Taxation and Finance, so essentially one government entity will just be paying another.

The parks department, however, said it did not believe any fine was needed.

“We are in compliance with the court order now and have been for some time,” wrote Vickie Karp, a spokeswoman, in a statement. “We do not think sanctions were warranted in this case.”

Still, Mr. Dobbins said, the ruling sends a message to government bodies: obey the law in a timely manner.

“I’m a private practitioner, and if I continue to ignore something that I’m supposed to do, my client can sack me,” he said. “We can’t sack a government agency.”

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