Deb Zerafa was a loved and respected animal control officer in Grand Traverse County. She fought the administrative battles to secure funding and better working conditions for her department. Then, one day, she arrived at work to find she was placed on administrative leave. She was shell-shocked. Several days later, Grand Traverse County officials released a report that attempts to justify her termination.
The only problem is, the report doesn’t justify anything.
It seems that Grand Traverse County has played a game of Harvey Silvergate’s “Three Felonies a Day” — who quoted Stalin operative Lavrentiy Beria to say, “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Basically, that you can look at anyone’s behavior and find a crime to accuse them of, even if they haven’t done anything.
Allegations of a hostile environment
This article from Pet Friends Magazine has more to say. They say that Zerafa complained about a hostile working environment. They said she was placed on leave right after she complained.
Exceptions to the search and seizure rules
The offenses they allege that Zerafa committed include Fourth Amendment violations. The Fourth Amendment basically says that law enforcement can’t interfere with someone’s rights if the person isn’t doing anything wrong. They accuse Zerafa of entering onto people’s property without the lawful right.
So here’s the problem with that. There are several exceptions to search and seizure rules that apply to justify Zerafa’s conduct even if the facts are exactly as the county says. They are:
Hot Pursuit – If a furball runs into the neighbor’s yard, you can chase them. There are no sanctuaries or olly, olly, oxen frees when law enforcement is in hot pursuit of you or your pet. (Just like you’re not “safe” from drunk driving if only you can make it back to your driveway before the police stop you.)
Emergency – Animal control can step in and help a furball before they suffer physically or emotionally. And isn’t that exactly what we want our animal control officers to do?
Plain Sight – If the law enforcement officer is someplace they’re legally allowed to be and they see a violation, they don’t have to pretend they didn’t see it.
Permission/Consent – Law enforcement can enter onto the property if the person with authority over the property says they can.
Honest Mistake – Finally, there’s no way Zerafa violated anyone’s rights intentionally. Animal control matters happen in real time. Zerafa doesn’t have the time to go consult with a lawyer or Monday-morning quarterback the situation about what she should do before a little furball runs around another corner. Officials don’t cite enough instances to show a repetitive pattern. Rather, they show that they found a thing or two that they think they can hang their hat on to justify a dismissal.
My guess is, these exceptions to the search and seizure laws more than justify Zerafa’s conduct from a legal CYA standpoint. In any event, it seems absurd to be firing Zerafa for what in the worst-case scenario amounts to a few honest mistakes over a long period of time. It does not appear that these mistakes open the county up to any kind of financial liability. At best, the county might be kind to waive someone’s fee for impounding a furry friend, but that’s about it. Let’s not forget that animal control officers deal with horrific cases of animal abuse and neglect. To have her actions fly-speecked after the fact by officials who aren’t there to experience it with her and who obviously have an agenda is wrong on lots of levels.
Is Grand Traverse County going to pay Zerafa’s “victims?”
There’s not a lot of legal authority out there about search and seizure when it comes to animal control. It doesn’t sound like the county has been sued for anything Zerafa allegedly did. It sounds like if the county believes that Zerafa has violated constitutional rights, the county might agree to pay out $$ to what must be traumatized victims? I doubt it.
I think the fact that they’re kitchen sinking everything they can possibly use to justify termination of Zerafa is indicative of the fact that they don’t really have anything. If Zerafa really did one thing to justify her dismissal, the report would be about one thing. But the fact that they’re throwing everything out there to see what sticks is a sign that she really hasn’t done anything to warrant the actions that the county officials have taken.
And what about the rest of the county employees and law enforcement?
Time sheets and mileage – I bet if we looked at any other employee’s time sheets and mileage reports, we could find errors. Private sector or public sector – never making a mistake in recording or reporting is just unreasonable. HR departments make reporting errors all the time. A mistake is a far cry from fraud. There’s also the question of what the expectations were – Are county employees to record the actual time worked, or if they’re salaried, do they just need to record the hours worked in order to complete the paperwork to get paid? If the expectation was the later, it’s not fair or honest to change that expectation after the fact.
And what about not fully devoting your energy to your job? Isn’t that cheating? Like reading this website on county time? Isn’t that just as bad? And yet, some of you do it.
They call Zerafa’s conduct deceitful, but there’s no indication of whether she had some kind of intent for financial gain from making the reports. I would expect the latter to have any action taken against a public employee.
The fact that Grand Traverse County is hanging on constitutional Fourth Amendment violations to justify doing anything to anyone is hilarious. This is the county sheriff’s department that’s one of the last departments in history of ancient America to refuse in-car dash cams, because well, they’re so good they don’t need them. And selective prosecution is a Grand Traverse County law enforcement specialty — If the police like you, they help you hide your drunk driving or they treat it as a medical situation.
Can we have a new rule that any law enforcement officer gets canned for any Fourth Amendment violation, ever? And can we have a public committee to review each and every interaction for a potential violation, as you’ve done for Zerafa? You know, since the county takes these things so seriously. (sarcasm)
Where do we go from here?
My heart breaks for Zerafa. I believe that she was unfairly targeted. Perhaps this is a warning shot about dissent in the Alger administration. And what about private citizens? What happens to us when we upset the wrong people?
How are we supposed to vote on the upcoming animal control mileage? At this point, I would follow Zerafa’s recommendation about whether to vote for it or not.