Adrian Benepe, Commissioner of the NYC Parks Department, encourages the public to violate the leash law in NYC parks from 9pm to 9am, twelve hours a day, by promoting “off-leash hours” during this time. The Juniper Park Civic Association has brought a lawsuit against the NYC Department of Parks and Adrian Benepe over this controversial “relaxed leash law.” The case was heard in Queens Supreme Court on August 29, 2006. Judge Peter Kelly presided.

Both sides in the lawsuit stated their positions, with the JPCA represented by their attorney, Gabriel Tapalaga. Mr. Tapalaga explained the fact that according to New York City Health Code 161.05, dogs are to be leashed at all times while in a public place. He further explained to the judge that the JPCA feels that it is a dangerous practice for an appointed NYC commissioner to encourage the public to break the law. Judge Kelly grilled the Parks Department attorney, Paula Van Metter, about the appropriateness of an appointed city commissioner, who took an oath of office to uphold the law, giving himself the authority to contradict or disregard a standing NYC law.

Ms. Van Mutter gave a convoluted and often disjointed explanation as to why the commissioner feels he has the authority to allow off-leash activity within NYC Parks. Judge Kelly mentioned that the law is very clear and does not mention that there are exemptions to it within NYC Parks. The Parks attorney did admit, however, that there is reason for confusion and that in the next ninety days the NYC Parks Department will attempt to clarify the commissioner’s authority by working with the NYC Department of Health to amend the leash law. The Parks attorney also said that the agency, while clarifying the policy, would expand the off- leash program so that more NYC dog owners may enjoy off-leash hours in parks. Amending the NYC Charter with regard to the commissioner’s authority may also be explored.

After the hearing, Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden stated that since the Parks Department feels that there is a need to amend the leash law, “The NYC Parks Department is essentially admitting that the current ‘unofficial’ off-leash policy violates NYC Health Code 161.05. Parks is now trying to rewrite a law to justify their illegal actions and at the same time expand a program that jeopardizes the public.”

Dog owners who walk their dogs in NYC Parks comprise a small percentage of total park patrons. Of those, an even smaller percentage of owners allow their dogs to be off-leash in a park. For those dog owners, Parks is willing to put the general public in harm’s way. An unleashed dog has the potential to not only attack people within the park, but also those who are outside of the park, as happened in the case of attack victim, Matthew Connolly, near Maspeth’s Principe Park last June. The Parks Commissioner argues that he should have the authority to make rules with respect to parks; however, streets and sidewalks are not areas over which he has jurisdiction. ”Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe feels he has the right to put the public at risk in and around NYC parks, particularly in the early morning hours when children and adults are traversing parks to access city buses and nearby schools,” Holden said.

Judge Kelly ended the hearing after two hours and said he would render his decision.