ATLANTA (CN) – A man who bred exotic cats in a residential neighborhood for more than 30 years without a business license cannot be cited for violating two unconstitutionally vague laws, a federal judge ruled.
Alfred Boyajian says he has been breeding wild cats in residential Atlanta since 1977, as a hobby and to help preserve wildcat species. Georgia law required Boyajian to obtain a wild animal license for his exotic cats, which included Eurasian and Canadian lynxes, bobcats, caracals, and servals – although the cats were classified as “inherently nondangerous wild animals.”
After moving to a new residential area in 1994, Boyajian obtained zoning accessory-use approval and a building permit for 8-foot high perimeter and pen fences from the city. Atlanta did not require Boyajian to get a business license, however, since he had no employees, used his own resources to pay for the cats and only sold two to three cats a year at cost.
Following numerous wildcat escapes from Boyajian’s property, neighbors filed complaints with the city council, prompting it to investigate the plaintiff’s permits. According to Boyajian’s complaint, the city cited him for operating a business without a license and for commercial use of an accessory structure in a residential area.
Boyajian says after more than 30 years, Atlanta changed its position, requiring him to get a business license for breeding wildcats, a previously exempt activity. The city denied Boyajian’s application for a business license in 2007, finding that he could not operate his business in a residential area, according to the complaint.
Boyajian challenged two of Atlanta’s ordinances, asking the court to declare them void for vagueness and to enjoin the city from enforcing them.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story rejected Boyajian’s argument that Atlanta’s business-license ordinance was unconstitutionally vague facially. But the court agreed that the phrase “casual or isolated activity,” as applied to Boyajian’s wildcat business, created vagueness problems. Since the business-license ordinance does not define the phrase, the city engaged in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, according to the 23-page ruling.
“Under this scheme, the city officials have ‘unbridled discretion’ to determine what exceeds the ‘casual or isolated’ threshold, without any objective criteria,” Story wrote.
The fact that Atlanta changed its position after more than 30 years, requiring Boyajian to get a business license for an activity that was previously considered noncommercial, reflects the city’s arbitrary enforcement of the ordinance, the order states.
Boyajian had also challenged Atlanta’s accessory-use ordinance on void for vagueness grounds.
The court found that the ordinance, which allows accessory structures in residential areas, but prohibits accessories “of a commercial nature,” was not unconstitutionally vague on its face.
Story ruled that the accessory-use ordinance was vague as applied, since it failed to clearly define what constitutes activity of a commercial nature, allowing the city to interpret activities arbitrarily.
Story permanently enjoined Atlanta from enforcing the ordinances against Boyajian. He also declined to consider the city’s response to Boyajian’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Atlanta had no justification for filing its response 12 days late.