Brief Summary of Police Shooting Pets Update
Jessica Swadow (2015)
“Puppycide” is a new term used to describe the situation in which a police officer shoots a family pet. Critics who have begun to collect statistics on the shooting of pets by police indicate that this is becoming more commonplace in many parts of the country. Because such shootings are done by police officers, many may assume there is no legal recourse. However, pet owners may have viable legal cases that can be brought in either federal or state court. Such cases are fact-specific and often hinge on whether the police officer was acting reasonably given the circumstances.
These cases often allege violations of the pet owner’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, but can also include claims based on theories of state and local laws. Since pets are considered personal property in all fifty states, they can be protected from unreasonable seizures and unlawful takings by government officials. When these cases are brought, courts must also consider whether the police officer and police department are protected by qualified immunity, a legal defense that protects police officers from liability for their actions while working in their official capacities.
Although a quick internet search may show many cases of “puppycide” across the country, some cities and states are making efforts to make these cases the exception and not the rule. Better training of police officers and communication with communities are key to ending “puppycide.” Even technology promises to change the trend, as body and dashcams are becoming instrumental in holding officers accountable for unreasonable actions. Courts and legislatures across the country are moving in this direction – some faster than others. In the meanwhile, pet owners may are still left with some legal remedies in the courtroom.
Overview of Police Shooting Pets Update
Jessica Swadow (2015)
Is there any legal recourse when a police officer shoots a dog? This is a question becoming more and more frequently asked as the incidence of “puppycide” – a recent term coined to describe the egregious and often avoidable situations in which police officers shoot domestic pets – continues to rise. When a pet is killed by the police, pet owners may pursue legal remedies through the courts. Because all fifty states still view pets as personal property, pet owners may have claims that are rooted in the U.S. Constitution as well as state claims.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from having their property unreasonably seized by the government. Because pets are considered property and the police are considered government officials, the killing of a pet is therefore a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. The key to a Fourth Amendment claim when the police kill a pet is whether the police officer was acting reasonably. This determination is based upon what a reasonable officer would have done in similar circumstances. The subjective thoughts and intentions of the officer involved in the incident are not considered.
Pet owners may also have a claim under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment states that the government may not take personal property without providing “just compensation” to the owner. However, there is an exception to this constitutional requirement – if the officer was properly exercising “police power,” the killing of the pet would not violate the Constitution. Determining whether the officer was legitimately using his police power is based upon the specific shooting incident and the surrounding circumstances.
Pet owners may file suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 raising these constitutional claims if their animals were killed by the police. This statute allows citizens to file lawsuits based upon the assertion that they were deprived of a constitutionally guaranteed right. In order to be successful in such a claim, the pet owner must prove that (1) the police officer was acting as a police officer – not as a private citizen, (2) the officer’s actions involved a seizure of the pet owner’s property, and (3) that seizure was unreasonable when viewed objectively.
Despite these legal causes of action, there is one major hurdle each pet owner must overcome in each case: that of qualified immunity. Both the police officers as individuals and the police department itself may claim they cannot be held responsible for the killing of a pet. Courts have long held that a government official – police officer in this instance – will be protected from liability that involves actions taken while working in his or her official capacity as a police officer. An individual officer’s protection is not automatic and can be overcome by the suing pet owner if he or she can show that the officer violated the pet owner’s constitutional right and a reasonable officer should have known that he or she was violating this right. Different from an individual police officer, the qualified immunity of a municipality is automatic. In order to defeat this immunity in court, a pet owner needs to show that the municipality (usually the police department), had an official policy in place or was aware of customs and practices throughout the department that violated the U.S. Constitution. These are not easy claims to prove.
While courts grapple with determining the liability and immunity of police officers and municipalities, there have been proactive efforts to prevent further instances of puppycide. Police departments across the country handle training officers differently – some using a “common sense” approach, while others provide more specific training on non-lethal methods. In recent years, as “puppycide” has gained national attention, some departments have reevaluated their approach and begun more comprehensive training of police officers. Colorado has become the first state to enact legislation that is focused on canine-police encounters through the Dog Protection Act. This new law mandates that police departments train their officers on dog behavior, non-lethal methods of controlling dogs, and ways in which dog owners can remove their dogs from certain situations. Recent use of police body cameras may also assist by holding officers aware and accountable for their interactions with pets and their owners. The footage also serves as objective evidence for the judge and/or jury to view to make their own determination of the dog’s behavior and reasonableness of the police officer. Police and advocates alike hope that better training and more community based approaches reduce the frequency of these “puppycide” incidents.