I KNOW IT WHEN I HEAR IT
I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to stay awake in Constitutional Law, despite the fact that the first-year law class was right after lunch in a too-warm lecture hall. My alertness undoubtedly is why I so well Justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in the otherwise unremarkable obscenity case Jacobellis v. Ohio.
The Justices were wrestling with how best to craft a working definition of obscenity against which to judge a triple-X movie reel confiscated from alleged porn purveyor Nico Jacobellis. Justice Potter Stewart knew better than to waste time conjuring up limitations on the meaning of “obscenity.” In his now-famous concurrence, he declared that
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Justice Stewart’s verbal frustration with an evanescent standard came to mind last night when I got a call from long-time reader Wendy Whist, who was being driven to distraction by the neighbor’s dogs. Wendy lives on a quiet residential street in the sleepy little Ohio town of Snoreburg. Well, it was quiet and sleepy, until neighbor Bertha Barkley acquired a pair of noisy little yapmeisters.
It may just be my perception (driven no doubt by the pair of mini-noisemakers my neighbor Ann leads past my house several times a day), but it seems to me that the smaller the dog, the more annoying the bark. That is certainly the case for Bertha’s little snack dogs: she leaves the pint-sized yappers outside all day in her fenced-in back yard. Wendy reports that the dogs bark at intruders, clouds, insects, leaves, grass, trees, the air, the moon, the sun, light, dark… you get the idea. Wendy says the cacophony is incessant.
When Wendy complained to her neighbor, Bertha – whose disdain for others makes her much more cat-like than dog-like – retorted that the dogs were in a fenced-in yard, so there was not a thing Wendy could do about the noise. When the neighbor on the other side of Bertha’s place called the police, the responding officer said that because the dogs were fenced in behind Bertha’s place, there was nothing law enforcement could do.
Wendy called me because I write about tree law. Trees have bark. Dogs bark. It’s a logical connection.
The police officer was mistaken. Like many towns, Snoreburg has an ordinance that prohibits people from “keep[ing] or harbor[ing] any animal or fowl in the Municipality which frequently create unreasonably loud and disturbing noises of such character, intensity, and duration as to disturb the peace, quiet and good order of the Municipality.” The ordinance makes the first offense a minor misdemeanor. For a second offense within two years, jail time and an order to get rid of the barking dogs (or chickens, as the case may be) may be imposed.
I suggested that the next time the nice policeman is called, point out the ordinance to him and demand politely that he go and do his best endeavor (which in this case would be to cite Bertha and her dogs).
But the whole episode set me to wondering. This blog’s approach to tree and neighbor law is much more civil and less criminal than just getting your neighbor locked up. Could Bertha’s continual and continuous barking (OK, it’s really her dogs making the noise, but it’s hard to keep Bertha’s uncivil attitude separate from her canines’ caterwauling) constitute a nuisance? Could the long-suffering Wendy sue Bertha, seeking an order to that she abate the nuisance, which is legalese for “shut the dogs up?” Those musings reminded me of Potty Stewart wrestling with the definition of obscenity in Jacobellis. At what point does the barking cross that fuzzy line between mere irritation and legally-actionable annoyance?
The court in today’s case grappled with that question. Like Justice Stewart, the panel of appellate judges eschewed drawing a bright line. Instead, they delivered the usual nuisance-law mush that “the amount of annoyance or inconvenience will constitute a legal injury resulting in actual damage, being a question of degree, is dependent on varying circumstances, cannot be precisely defined, and must be left to the good sense and sound discretion of the tribunal called upon to act.”
But that being said, the appellate judges held, here the defendants’ four dogs had clearly barked themselves well over that line, indistinct though it may be. The Court of Appeals said of nuisance that ‘they know it when they hear it, and the dogs’ barking was clearly it.’
Zang v. Engle, Case No. 00AP-290 (Ct.App. Franklin Co., Sept. 19, 2000) 2000 Ohio App. LEXIS 4222, 2000 WL 1341326. Charles Zang and his family lived next door to the Engles, who owned four dogs. Charlie testified that since they moved into their house in 1997, the dogs were outside and barked continuously. He could hear the dogs barking from inside his house, both with the windows open and closed. He described the barking in the two years prior to trial as extreme, excessive, and loud, barking that at times affected his ability to sleep, interrupted meals, interfered with phone calls, television watching, and entertaining. Charlie, who worked from home, had to move his office from the back of his home to the front, yet he still at times heard the barking.
Ms. Zang said that it affected her ability to concentrate, it caused her to become “more stressed out” when the dogs were out and barking excessively, and it affected her mood when she entertained guests. Id. at 150-151. She has not been able to relax, and the barking has interrupted her sleep. She said, “We find that there are times when we are trying to have a normal dinner conversation and the dogs come out barking and we become so frustrated and so upset because we can’t do anything about that that we have to go and shut the windows, or we have felt on many occasions that we don’t want to necessarily be at home and that we will just leave, just to get away.”
The barking had gone on regularly over the past couple of years. Charlie kept a log of the dog barking. Entries were made almost every day from mid-December, 1997, to mid-March 1999. Most days, the dogs were described as barking continuously for at least fifteen minutes up to over one hour. The remaining time the dogs were out, they barked periodically. Some of the barking occurred around 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. A lot of the barking was during the evening hours of 5 to 6 p.m. However, the logs as whole show that the dogs were outside and barking at various times.
Charlie sued the Engles, claiming that barking dogs constituted a nuisance. The trial court agreed and ordered the Engles to abate the nuisance. The Engles appealed.
Held: The barking dogs constituted an absolute nuisance.
An absolute nuisance, for which strict liability (or liability without fault) is imposed by law, is a civil wrong arising or resulting from the invasion of a legally protected interest, and consisting of unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property of another. It is the doing of anything or the permitting of anything under one’s control or direction to be done without just cause or excuse, the necessary consequence of which interferes with or annoys another in the enjoyment of his legal rights which results in injury to another.
A private nuisance, on the other hand, involves the invasion of the private interest in the use and enjoyment of land. The law of private nuisance is a law of degree, and it generally turns on the factual question of whether the use to which the property is put is a reasonable use under the circumstances and whether there is an appreciable, substantial, tangible injury resulting in actual material and physical discomfort. What amount of annoyance or inconvenience will constitute a legal injury resulting in actual damage, being a question of degree, is dependent on varying circumstances, cannot be precisely defined, and must be left to the good sense and sound discretion of the tribunal called upon to act.
To entitle the Zangs to recover damages for a nuisance, it is not necessary that they be driven from their home or that the Engles create a positive unhealthy condition. Instead, it is enough that the Zangs’ enjoyment of life and property is rendered uncomfortable. In so determining, a trial court must look at what persons of ordinary tastes and sensibilities would regard as an inconvenience or interference materially affecting their physical comfort.
Given all of the facts, the Court held, “there was sufficient competent, credible evidence to support a finding of a private nuisance.”
The permanent injunction issued by the trial court directed in part that the Engles are “permanently enjoined and restrained from permitting any of the dogs they own or harbor, to bark in the manner described in the following paragraph, while said dogs are outside their residence… All parties understand that an infrequent bark is not what this permanent injunction is enjoining; rather, the intent of this Permanent Injunction is to restrain and enjoin the Engles’ dogs from creating an unreasonable amount of noise so as to interfere with the peace, quiet and normal enjoyment to which the Zangs are entitled in the use of their residence… The Engles are to obtain an anti-barking device for the dogs.”
The Court of Appeals held that the injunction was enforceable and proper. “The law of nuisance,” the Court held, “is a law of degree and reasonableness. It does not follow then that an injunction cannot issue which addresses the exact nuisance found to exist. Here, the nuisance is dog barking. While the amount of barking that may be found excessive cannot be measured exactly, there is sufficient evidence in the record as to dog barking that can be looked to if enforcement of the injunction is necessary.”
– Tom Root