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What Due Process Should be Provided to Dog Owners Before the Government can Remove or Euthanize Their Dogs?

Jennifer Wang


Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
2007
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

What Due Process Should be Provided to Dog Owners Before the Government can Remove or Euthanize Their Dogs?

How Does Due Process Apply to Dog Seizure/Euthanasia Cases?

Despite the fact that animals are still considered property in all legal jurisdictions today, due process, whether rooted in the federal or state constitutions, extends to “life, liberty, or property.”  The more complicated issue, however, is how much process is due?  The Supreme Court has promulgated a four prong test to determine this.  In each situation, a court must weigh

  1. the private interest affected by the official action
  2. the risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest through the procedures used,
  3. the probable value of additional procedural safeguards, and
  4. the government interest involved. 

Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976).  Due process requires the opportunity to be heard “at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.”  Rabon v. City of Seattle (Rabon II), 107 Wash.App. 734, 743 (2001) (citing Mathews, 424 U.S. at 333).  Thus, when individuals can show they will suffer irreparable harm from a post-deprivation hearing, courts have recognized that a pre-deprivation hearing is necessary.  In the case of orders to euthanize pets, many courts have considered the loss to the pet owner as irreparable. 

Before the Hearing: Filing a Petition for a Preliminary Injunction

Dog owners should file a petition for an injunction to delay the killing of the dog until they have had the chance to be heard in court (For an actual example, see Petition for Preliminary and Permanent Injunction in the case of Wilson v. City of St. Louis (1990), which involved a Pit Bull named "Max" who was impounded and classified as “dangerous” because he allegedly killed the neighbor’s dog.  The Circuit Court found that the plaintiff would suffer irreparable harm if the preliminary injunction was not granted and enjoined the city from killing or otherwise harming Max.  The court ordered the city to release Max and change his “dangerous” designation to “potentially dangerous.”). 

Overriding the Decision - Petition for a Writ of Mandamus

Due process includes more than just going through the motions of a hearing.  In fact, even after hearings have been granted, decisions can be challenged as a prejudicial abuse of discretion that is not based on findings of fact or law.  (This is what the owners of “Boo,” a bullmastiff who allegedly bit a child, argued in Williams v. Orange County Animal Control (1996)).  In this case, owners should file a Petition for a Writ of Mandamus, a judicial remedy issued by a superior court to compel a government officer to do or forbear from doing a specific act, to delay the euthanasia order until the appeal can be heard.  This writ of mandamus applies in any situation in which the euthanasia should be stayed, including scenarios in which an original hearing was never given. 

Minimum Standards of Due Process for the Hearing

It is now also clear that hearings must meet certain minimum standards.  Informal reviews that animal control agencies frequently provide upon the dog owner’s request often do not fulfill these requirements, because the decision-maker may not be qualified to render the judgment or may not be impartial if he also made the original decision to euthanize the dog.  For example, in Phillips v. San Luis Obispo County Dept., 228 Cal.Rptr. 101 Cal.App. (2 Dist.,1986), the owners of “Missy,” a black lab known to have a bad habit of biting children, contested the city’s decision to euthanize her.  The amicus brief filed by Joyce Tischler of the Animal Legal Defense Fund pointed out the Municipal Codes at issue did not provide for the Animal Regulation Director’s orders to be reviewed by the Chief Sanitarian of the County Health Department or the supervising environmental health officer, the two individuals who presided over the first and second hearings. 

Challenges to the Ordinance Itself

In fact, many city ordinances are flawed in that they fail to specify that owners are entitled to hearings before their pets are euthanized.  These municipal codes can be challenged as unconstitutional and, even if the city already granted hearings that met minimum due process standards, the decision to euthanize the pet would still have to be overturned.  Otherwise, whether dog owners generally would receive due process would be at the whim of the animal control agency, and the city could avoid having to correct its municipal codes simply by voluntarily giving all dog owners a hearing.  The court of appeals in Missy’s case agreed, concluding “that the ordinances here are unconstitutional for failure to provide for notice and a hearing either before or after the seizure of an uncontrollable biting or vicious dog.”

Most recently, in a landmark case, the court of appeals in Mansour v. King County, 128 P.3d 1241 (Wash.App. Div. 1,2006) held that due process required even more than offering owners a hearing, ordering that “an agency seeking to enforce a removal order must prove both the violation and the remedy it has imposed by a preponderance of the evidence.”  This is the same standard of proof imposed on the government when it attempts to temporarily remove a child from the custody of his parents.  By instituting a burden of proof on the city, the court was essentially finding that the dog must be presumed innocent until the city can prove otherwise.  Previously, there had been no standard of proof, and reviewing courts would only look to see if Animal Control had acted arbitrarily or capriciously.  Thus, even the most minimal evidence that a dog should be removed would suffice, and owners would bear the burden of proving their pets innocent.  Moreover, the court found that due process attached not only for orders to euthanize an animal, but also for orders of removal outside the county (Peter Mansour had been ordered to remove his dog from the county or turn his dog over to the city to be euthanized after his dog was accused of killing a cat). 

Finally, the court held that due process required Mansour to have the ability to subpoena records and witnesses in his defense, and that the Notice and Order of Violation had to specify exactly what code provisions had been violated.  Merely issuing a “brief and concise description of the conditions for finding the violation… is insufficient.”  Mansour was “entitled to know ahead of time exactly what the County needed to prove at the Board hearing.  If in fact it could not prove that Maxine violated a code provision that supported the removal order, he [Mansour] was entitled to know that in time to move for a dismissal at the Board level.”  Id. at 1250. 

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