BELLINGHAM - In Washington state, if you strike a cop, a nurse or a school bus mechanic, it's a felony.
But grabbing an animal control officer by the shoulders and throwing her to the ground? A misdemeanor.
Jaime Matthew Henifin, 54, did just that to an animal control officer in March and spent less than four hours in jail for the crime. He won't serve any more time behind bars because of an undisclosed medical condition.
To Laura Clark, director of the Whatcom Humane Society, it's case in point of a loophole in state law. Henifin, she said, got a "slap on the wrist" this week when he pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, for attacking Officer Katy Barnes.
On March 29, animal control officers Vicky Gibbons and Barnes responded to a citizen's report of a dog wandering in the street in the 3800 block on Hannegan Road. The dog, Taz, a German shepherd mix, wasn't wearing a collar, according to the humane society. So the uniformed officers leashed him and looked around for the owner.
Henifin's daughter came over and tried to take the dog. But she wouldn't identify herself, Clark said. Gibbons refused to hand over the dog. Then Henifin, the dog's owner, rushed over without saying who he was. Barnes - who is 5-foot-1 and weighs 105 pounds - stepped between Henifin and Taz. In court Monday, Sept. 9, Barnes said he shoved her down and pinned her to the ground. A witness told police he helped to "get (Henifin) off of" Barnes.
The dog ran off and Henifin gave chase.
At the sentencing hearing Monday afternoon, Henifin's attorney, Jeff Lustick, claimed animal control had harassed Henifin in the preceding months, and it culminated with the assault. Taz has terminal cancer, and animal control had been called by concerned citizens several times to check on the dog's health. Less than 24 hours before Henifin lashed out, the humane society had been called to check on the dog. Lustick called it an "onslaught" and a "heavy-handed government intrusion." (Barnes didn't know Henifin, so she didn't make the connection between him and his dog, according to the humane society.)
Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev ruled Henifin, who survived cancer himself and has health problems, can serve 50 hours of community service, rather than five days in a jail cell. He gave the judge a doctor's note to show her he's not able to serve the time.
"Apparently," Clark said, "he was medically sound enough to assault my officer but not well enough to serve time in jail."
At the court hearing Henifin apologized to the officer. Henifin emailed the following statement to The Bellingham Herald: "This was an unfortunate situation for my family, my pet, and I. It is an example of an agency's employees misusing their authority; harassing a private citizen, and then exaggerating the incident. Nonetheless, we made repeated attempts to mediate and resolve the issue directly with the prosecutor and individual employees involved. I am satisfied with the final outcome of my case."
Revised Code of Washington 9A.36.031 makes it a felony to assault uniformed police, firefighters, health care workers and school employees. But prosecutors never filed felony assault charges because it appears animal control officers - although they are contracted to enforce laws involving animals in Whatcom County and other counties around the state - didn't make the cut.
Sheriff Bill Elfo agrees with Clark that state law should give animal control the same legal protection as other law officers.
"Certainly those animal control officers go out into the field every day, getting warrants for our deputies and assisting us in criminal investigations," he said.
Elfo plans to work with Clark and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to push for an amendment to the RCW.
In the meantime the humane society, through private donations, has bought Kevlar body armor for animal control. That's not a reaction to the Henifin incident, but Barnes and her fellow officers often get called out to rural Whatcom County - where guns are more common - to help sheriff's deputies with corralling or confiscating animals. And given the strong emotions people have about their pets, the job can get dangerous.
"The animals are the easy part," Clark said. "It's the people."