Ann Musser was arrested at her Holyoke, Massachusetts, home, according to media reports, and spent four and a half hours in jail—because she was tardy in paying her $5 dog license fee.
Well, actually, as Holyoke City Clerk Brenna McGee assured me, Musser was actually arrested on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court—over the tardy $5 dog license fee. Musser is a little preoccupied these days with ovarian cancer, which may explain why she put an administrative fee on the back burner. But then, it's common practice in Massachusetts to refer people to court after they've ignored or simply missed notices of tickets for even the pettiest of offenses. And since petty offenses have proliferated, including the non-payment of fees for the most mundane activities, court referrals and encounters with the police over…well…bullshit are not uncommon.
Musser "and her husband are also repeated offenders" McGee told me, referring to the dog license issue. Licenses for Fido and Spot are required by the state of Massachusetts and Holyoke, both. McGee assures me that "this is not about the collection of administrative fees. This is a violation of city ordinance." But the two are not mutually exclusive. The city application asks for little more than "$5.00 for spayed female or neutered male (please include proof of altering), or $15.00 for unspayed or unneutered" and identifying information.
The state asks for proof of vaccination for rabies, but the Holyoke application includes no such provision, and nobody alleges that the Musser's 14-year-old family dog, Pumpkin, was rabid or even unvaccinated.
But Brenna McGee reports that there are lots of ways to get referred to the court system.
It has been the practice of this office (M.G.L Chapter 40 section 21d) and other cities to report unpaid tickets to the court system. The process begins in February. Up to three notices are sent to remind dog owners to license their dogs by the deadline. If by June 1st the dog is not licensed a ticket is issued by the City Dog Officer. Tickets are marked very clearly that if no payment is received within 21 days the ticket is then sent to the court.
Musser told the Republican that she paid the $5 license fee and $25 late fee, but only after court proceedings had begun. She claims she attempted to appear in court and cooled her heels in a crowded courtroom for three hours, but left after her complaints that seating a woman with a faltering immune system in a crowd might be less than brilliant fell on deaf ears.
Not that it matters. Let's not forget that she was supposed to kill a day in an institutional room because she failed to pay for a permission slip to own a dog. The court then sent armed men to nab her because she chafed at remaining in after-school detention court. The situation would have been ludicrous even if she were perfectly healthy.
"Please also note," McGee told me, "that ALL tickets are sent to the court after 21 days of no payment, not just dog tickets. To name a few: possession of marijuana, loud music, emptying of bulk waste containers before 7am, motorized scooters, animal waste, shopping carts, tag sale permit."
Yes, you can really end up summoned to court, and perhaps arrested for failure to appear, for not paying for a permission slip to have a tag sale.
"I do know that people have been arrested in Holyoke for dog tickets and most recently a few weeks ago in Belchertown," McGee said. "And yes, there have been arrests for unpaid other tickets as well. One just a few weeks ago in Holyoke." She didn't remember what the last arrest was for, other than that it was an ordinance violation.
Speaking of revenue, state laws specify that, once court proceedings have begun over dog licenses, tag sales, and the like, "any fines imposed under the provisions of this section shall enure to the city or town for such use as said city or town may direct." So there just may be a bit of incentive to proliferate those petty, annoying ordinances and send defaulters courtward-bound.
To be clear, Brenna McGee isn't the villain here—just a city clerk kind enough to answer questions. Similar answers would have been forthcoming from most officials in her position in Massachusetts and elsewhere. In a hyper-regulated world, everything becomes a subject for administrative procedures, the begging of permission, and the payment of fees. And hyper-regulated as we are, disorganization or defiance of even the stupidest rules become grounds for encounters with armed men.
I asked McGee whether she and her colleagues ever discussed the appropriateness of the system that ensnared Musser. She declined to respond, though assured me that medical conditions are taken into account when they're known—a bit of mercy from the bureaucratic class, should they choose to grant it.
Ann Musser shouldn't have been exempted from arrest for being sick. She should have been free of fear of arrest for violating intrusive rules that have no business on the books and should certainly never be enforced by armed agents of the state.
The people who put those rules in place, and let the armed agents run loose, are the real villains.