Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Sides With Dogs


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Just about two years ago, I wrote about a dear friend who called late one night with a horrific story of how cops had come to her door and killed her dog. They had the wrong address and shot first before asking questions and getting their facts straight. I was super bitter about that back then, and I still am now, only I have some good news where such issues are concerned.

While the statistics I cited remain the same (a dog is shot by a police officer every 1.5 hours, or so), the deadly force is often used with kids present, and though many officers deem their actions necessary, annual records show that few cops are harmed (and never killed) by dogs, laws are changing.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund explains that “Companion animals are treated by the courts as personal ‘property.’ When an animal is harmed, a lawsuit must show damage to the owner. In tort cases, damages are sometimes measured by the “market value” of the animal.” Yet, several states (Alaska, Florida, Hawaii and New York) are changing their laws to provide (or allow people to request) relief beyond the dog’s market value. Some are giving emotional distress an intrinsic dollar value. And as the title above indicates, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States just sided with the dogs.

This court has jurisdiction over federal appeals arising from the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, and it just recently ruled that “police cannot simply kill your dog because you have failed to license it with the city.”

Yes, one small step for man, one giant leap for dog-kind. Here’s how:

A court case coming out of Detroit focused on the fatal shooting (by police) of three dogs found in the home of a suspected drug dealer. As an article about it notes, “While executing the search warrant, officers fatally shot Smith’s three dogs, one of which was pregnant. An officer allegedly commented after shooting a dog, ‘Did you see that? I got that one good.’ The raid turned up 25.8 grams of marijuana, and Smith was given a misdemeanor charge that was later dismissed.”

When she sued over the murder of the dogs, her case was also dismissed based on one single fact: She couldn’t establish possessory interest (ownership) because none of the dogs had licenses.

Fortunately, the Sixth District Court of Appeals disagreed and said that just as a member of the “police cannot destroy every unlicensed car or gun on the spot, they cannot kill every unlicensed dog on the spot.”

I greatly dislike that dogs are described and viewed as property, but in this instance, it works in a dog’s favor since it creates such a rational argument. And whether you recognized this or not, it is huge because it is a Fourth Amendment issue. This court effectively said that your Fourth Amendment rights as a dog owner do not depend upon your dog’s having a license. In other words, police cannot just bust into your home without a warrant, and they must identify what will be “searched and seized” when they enter your home.

They must respect your property, and that means that there are no longer any “get out of jail free” cards for police who shoot first and ask questions, later. Yes, there are reasons for some of the shootings, but in the Detroit case, the dog was not barking, the owner was leashing the dog INSIDE of her home, and the dog posed no threat. In ruling this way, the court made it quite clear to police that they can no longer eliminate dogs that might be in the way or a bit of a hassle to deal with without there also being serious legal implications.

Dogs Court Appeals

Understanding Both Sides

Now, I don’t want to paint an unbalanced image here because there are probably plenty of times when a police officer may face a serious threat in the form of a charging dog. In fact, the ALDF says that police typically decide to pull their weapon because a dog is a “perceived threat” or an “actual threat” such as dogs trained to attack.

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However, I want to offer readers a bit of insight as to why this is such a huge and ongoing problem and look at ways to avoid or eliminate the risks they and their dogs might face. So, let’s look at the most common reasons that dogs are shot by police and then learn what you can do to prevent such heartbreaking issues:

  • Actual threat – Did you train your dog as a guard dog? Does the dog have an aggressive side that you are trying to eliminate through training? If so, this is one of the worst set of conditions. A police officer may feel that your dog is about to attack based on its behaviors and it may even attack because of the aggressiveness of the police in terms of body language, tone of voice and the tension of any police-involved scenario. If you have a dog of this kind, tell police you are crating the dog before opening the door. Never let a dog of this kind roam free, even inside of an enclosed yard, and post signs as well as verbally alerting anyone entering the property that you have the dog and are dealing with it promptly (police included).
  • Perceived as a threat – The dog that is perceived as a threat may be seen this way because there is nothing between themselves and the dog. That dog may only be barking in a normal, alert mode way, or not barking at all. It is often left to the police to decide if a dog is a threat. What can you do about this? Well, you can try to reduce or even eliminate any direct contact that could occur between your dog and any member of the police. This means using a leash when outdoors and putting the dog on a lead inside if law enforcement is conducing a search. If you find yourself dialing 911, take a moment to leash the dog and even keep it in a sequestered room or crate before law enforcement arrives. Of course, certain breeds are often perceived as a threat just for their breed alone. Pit bulls, Rotties, Dobermans, and German Shepherds are a few of the most suspected breeds, but Mastiffs, poodles and Rhodesian Ridgebacks, among others, may find themselves suspected of ill intent. Again, it is up to you as a pet parent to restrain and crate the dog long before a police officer can deem them a threat.
  • Unleashed dogs – This is one of the most common factors in any of these shootings, and so you need to be well aware of the fact that most states have clearly established leash laws. Right now, the laws may only protect you if your dog is shot and unlicensed, but no laws will be on your side if your dog is running without a leash. Keep a dog out of harm’s way by keeping it under control, i.e. leashed when in public, leashed if police on the property and securely controlled within a fenced in yard.
  • High emotion and miscommunication – As the ALDF explains, “In many cases, an officer may shoot a dog in a victim’s home, even while responding to a call from that victim.” Naturally, this is evidence that police training is lacking, but all dog owners must be aware that a dog being shot inside of the home or in the yard is entirely possible when police are called to the premises. As I already said, if the police arrive, tell them you are putting the dog in a crate or locking it in another room, and if you actually dial 911, be sure your dog is secured in a crate long before police arrive. The shouting, crowding and tension of any police situation can lead even a good dog to flip out, and that is when tragedy occurs. Overcome it proactively by securing your puppo even as you speak to a 911 operator. And you can also alert that operator of the dog’s presence and the fact that you are securing it – that way it is on a recording!
  • Overprotective puppos – Sadly, your dog’s natural instinct to protect the pack (or just you alone) may lead to tragedy. There is no law against your dog’s barking at people pounding on the door or entering the home. After all, police say that they kill dogs they perceive as a threat, and YET they do not reverse this and consider that a dog is perceiving them as a threat, too. Again, that means that police probably need more training in such situations and should be taught non-violent and non-lethal ways to deal with dogs, but until then, try to train and socialize a dog and even give them cues that let them know you are secure or that they need to cool it down. I actually use the word “down” when I need Janice and Leroy to chill out. I use it when they are barking at something, getting too hyped up at the dog park, and acting foolish in the car. The command makes them both sit fully down with their chests on the floor.

You see a theme here, right? It is up to you, the owner of the dog or dogs, to think ahead and take proactive steps in the event that police should have to enter your home. As the experts warn, one of the reasons that police so often shoot dogs is poor planning. They do not lay out what they will do when they execute a search warrant or enter a scene. They have no plans as to how to handle unexpected civilians or animals, and so they don’t have any options in terms of how to best deal with them. This leads to the shoot first patterns.

So, you need to protect your puppos by thinking ahead. I don’t intend to ever have police in my home, but I’ve already thought out what I’d do if I have to phone them or I see them pulling into the yard. I suggest you copy my proactive plans to ensure your dogs do not end up in a terrible situation.

Proactive Planning in the Event of a Police Visit

I am not a huge fan of crates, as my readers know, but they can be amazing training tools for some dogs and a harbor of retreat for an overwhelmed dog. They are also perfect vessels for securing a dog if the police arrive. Because of that, step one is to supply your dog(s) with crates and train them to go to those crates on a single verbal cue or command.

You can put the crates in a location your dogs can always reach and just train them to head there with that command, and this keeps them 100% safe should law enforcement enter the building. It also meets the next step, which is to create a buffer between dogs and cops.

Keeping your dogs well away from police during any sort of activity is best because the dogs and the police are stressed, and this is a bad combination. You are likely to be stressed, too and your dogs will know. So, go with the crate training and you’ve created a pretty fail-proof approach.

Outside of the home is different, and you always want a very secure and unbreachable fence that allows the dogs to play outside, and best if out of direct line of sight of the street. Don’t allow your dogs to ever leave the premises off of their leads, either.

Finally, if you do encounter the police or you have to phone them, tell them that there is a dog or dogs on the premises, describe the dogs, tell them what room they are in and tell them that the dogs are secured in crates or locked in the room.

It also helps to check your state laws around the shooting of unleashed and unlicensed animals. And if something horrible does occur, get legal help immediately. You’ll want to try to document the issue (which means photos of the dog, an evaluation with the vet, witness statements, and so on). However, with more and more light on this issue and laws beginning to change, we may not need to worry so much about this in the future.

Related Content:

When Dogs Are Involved, Cops Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
Landlords, Dogs and the Law
13 Weird Dog Laws You Might Be Breaking