A federal court recently issued a ruling that has got the media in a frenzy. Can police officers now shoot an animal for moving or barking when entering a home? While the court ruling did order a police shooting of 2 in-home pets as justified, it doesn’t give the police a sweeping authority to shoot your dog.
Let’s Break It Down
The facts of this case are important to the ruling because the decision is based on the totality of the circumstances. A warrant was issued out of a Michigan court that gave the Battle Creek Police Department (BCPD) permission to search a local residence, the owner a known gang affiliate, for drugs.
According to court documents, as officers began to execute the search warrant, officers noticed dogs “…barking aggressively, ‘digging and pawing,’ and ‘jumping’ at the window.” An officer testified that upon entering the home, a 97-pound pit bull lunged at him and it was then that the officer fired his gun at the dog, only injuring it. The dog retreated to the basement.
The officer further testified that he could not safely clear the resident’s basement because the already injured pit bull was standing at the bottom of the steps. It was then the officer fired two fatal shots into the already injured dog.
The same officer additionally testified that the second pit bull was standing across the room and barking at the officers, so he fired shots at the second dog. The dog ran to the corner of the room and caught the eye of a second officer, who then fired shots at the second dog. An officer then testified that because the dog had several wounds, he “…‘didn’t want to see it suffer’ so he put her out of her misery and fired the last shot”.
Killing a Pet Constitutes a Seizure under 4th Amendment
Many courts have widely agreed that deadly force against a household pet constitutes a seizure. We know that seizures are unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment if they’re unreasonable. It’s also been established that killing a pet is reasonable only if the pet poses an imminent danger and force is unavoidable.
Hindsight is 20/20
Ever heard the expression “hindsight is 20/20”? It’s easy for a person to see things that seem obvious after-the-fact, but it’s the circumstances before-the-fact that matter most when answering these kinds of questions. Courts focus on the perspective of the officer on the scene and not the perspective of the perfect vision that hindsight offers. It all comes down to whether or not the pet poses an imminent threat from the perspective of the officer.
This is important because anyone reading those facts above after-the-fact could easily argue the officers acted unreasonably against the two dogs. Shooting the first dog when the dog lunged at the officer is one thing, but shooting an injured animal that’s simply barking is another story. But, again, the courts don’t get the pleasure of making those judgments based on hindsight and they must consider the perspective of the officers in the moment of the situation.
Court Says Fear of Imminent Threat from Dogs Was Reasonable
There’s no argument that executing a search warrant lends to stressed circumstances for police officers and those officers are often forced to make split-second judgements based on unknowns. The court found that due to the already high nature of the threat against the officers executing the warrant in a home of known gang affiliates, the officers were understandably on high alert.
The shooting of the first dog, according to the court, was warranted because 1) it was aggressively barking, 2) it lunged at the officer, 3) even after the dog had already been shot by the officer, the dog continued to aggressively block the officers entrance into the basement, and 4) the officers could not safely clear the basement while the dog was preventing the officer to do so. The court found the shooting of the second dog reasonable because both officers testified they could not safely clear the basement with the presence of the barking dog.
Conceptually, I agree with the standard used by the court—if an animal poses an imminent threat, then force is reasonable. However, I’m not convinced, at least that the second dog, posed an imminent threat to the officers in this situation. Although the court didn’t actually create a bright line rule giving police the power to shoot any moving or barking animal inside a house, actual application of this ruling could have potential repercussions for abuse.