The following is a quick overview of the issues relating to cases involving police shooting of pets.
"The police just shot my dog after it escaped from my yard. Do I have any recourse?"
When pet owners find themselves faced with a case involving the shooting of their pet they may be able to file a lawsuit in federal or state courts. There are two general steps to address when determining if a cause of action exists that would support the filing of a lawsuit.
A. Step One – Review state law.
State law will govern many aspects of whether or not a lawsuit can be filed for the shooting of a pet. Several things must be determined before any lawsuit is filed: 1) is the pet considered personal property; 2) are there any state statutes that could justify the officer’s shooting of the pet; and 3) is there a cause of action under state law.
First, pets are considered property under state not federal laws. If the pet is considered personal property its injury or killing could be considered a federal violation of the pet owner’s constitutional Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures of their property. The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that an unreasonable meaningful interference with or destruction of personal property is a violation of the Fourth Amendment even when an officer is acting pursuant to a warrant.
Second, if the state has statutes that allow an officer to shoot an animal then the officer’s behavior would be justified and not unreasonable. These types of statutes can include, among other things, statutes that allow officers to shoot loose or unlicensed animals, statutes that allow officers to shoot dangerous animals, and statutes that allow officers to enter onto personal property to capture animals.
Third, some states may have statutes that allow a person to sue in state court. This is important when there is not a federal Fourth Amendment cause of action because a pet owner might still be able to file a lawsuit in state court. This is also important when there is a federal Fourth Amendment cause of action because any state claim must be raised in the federal lawsuit or the pet owner may lose the right to raise that issue at a later time.
B. Step Two – Determine if there is any liability.
Step number two is to determine if there is an entity or individual that can be held liable for shooting the pet. If there is no entity or individual who can be held liable, there can be no lawsuit. Government agencies and officials generally have immunity from liability for lawsuits filed against them for their actions when acting in their official capacity. However, this immunity is not absolute and can be defeated.
In the case of an agency, it is very difficult to defeat the immunity. The only way to defeat immunity is to show that the governmental agency has supported a policy or custom that is indifferent to individuals’ constitutional rights. Errors or misconduct on the part of the agencies’ employees do not support this requirement. There have currently been no cases involving pet shootings where agency immunity has been defeated.
On the other hand, it is not as difficult to defeat the immunity of the individual officer(s) involved. An individual officer’s immunity can be defeated if there is a constitutional violation AND if a reasonable officer would have known that his actions violated that right. Federal law is clear that the unreasonable interference or destruction of personal property would be a constitutional violation. If the officer’s actions in shooting the pet were not justified or were not reasonable under law, he can be held to know that his actions would have violated a pet owner’s right. State law and the facts of the case will determine whether an officer was justified in shooting the pet. The facts of the case will determine whether an officer was unreasonable.
There are two links at the bottom of this page. The first link is to a factual scenario. This document contains the facts of a dog's shooting as reiterated by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals together with numerous legal questions that can be raised by the scenario. The second link is to a detailed discussion. This document contains a much more detailed discussion of the issues addressed in this overview and numerous links to state statutes, federal statutes, and relevant court opinions which are linked in their entirety. The detailed discussion also contains an analysis of several cases that have addressed the issue of pet shootings to show how the courts analyze and interpret the applicable law relating to this topic.
While it may seem that mounting a successful lawsuit for the wrongful shooting of a pet is impossible, this is not true. With research and diligence on the part of someone considering filing a lawsuit for the shooting of a pet, cases can be made in many instances. The shooting of a person's pet by a law enforcement officer is not considered automatically acceptable by our courts of law.