Sixth Circuit: Unreasonable Seizure of Pets Is a Violation of the Fourth Amendment
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that an individual has a property right in his or her pet, the unreasonable seizure of which is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
On April 16, 2013, the Battle Creek Police Department conducted a trash pull at Danielle Nesbitt’s residence. The officers recovered baggies containing marijuana and cocaine and mail addressed to Mark Brown, Cheryl Brown, and Vincent Jones. The officers were aware of Jones’s criminal history and involvement with a local gang.
On April 17, 2016, the officers obtained a warrant to search the residence. That same day, the officers executed the search warrant. On the way to the residence, the officers received information that Jones left the residence and was detained by police and possessed heroin. The officers were also informed the there was a dog in the backyard with Mark Brown.
When the officers arrived, Brown was walking on the front lawn of the residence toward his car when Officer Sutherland pulled behind him and arrested him. After he was detained, Brown notified Officer Sutherland that he had a key to the front door, no one was inside, and his two dogs were in the residence. Officer Sutherland later testified that he attempted to notify the other officers of this information, but they did not receive this warning.
Officers Klein and Case noticed a “Beware of Dog” sign on the property. Officer Klein then approached the front door, where he saw two dogs in the front window standing on the couch. Officer Klein testified that the dogs barked aggressively and jumped at the window. Disagreeing with Officer Klein, Brown testified that he was able to see the two dogs in the window before the door was breached, and neither was barking.
Officer Klein knocked on the front door, announced the officers’ presence, and breached the door with a ram less than 15 seconds later. He testified that when he entered the residence, the first dog jumped off the couch, barked, and lunged at him. Officer Klein explained “lunged” as moving “a few inches.” At that point, Officer Klein shot the dog with a non-lethal shot, though he was “aiming at its head.” The first dog went down the stairs and into the basement.
The officers descended down the stairs and into the basement. Officer Klein saw the first dog standing down there, which blocked his pathway and barked at him. He fired two fatal rounds at the first dog. Officer Klein then noticed the second dog standing across the basement. That dog did not move towards the officers. Officer Klein then fired two rounds at the second dog. The second dog ran into a back corner of the basement.
Officer Young walked to the back corner where the second dog stood to “clear the basement” and shot the second dog because she was “moving” out of the corner. After being shot, the second dog ran behind the furnace in the corner of the basement. Officer Case saw the dog suffering and fired the last shot to put the dog “out of her misery.”
On March 17, 2015, Mark and Cheryl Brown (Plaintiffs) filed an action against Officers Klein, Young, and Case and the Battle Creek Police Department (Defendants), claiming violations of their constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged Defendants violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure when the officers unconstitutionally seized their dogs and unreasonably forced entry into the residence.
On January 26, 2016, Defendants moved the district court for summary judgment on the basis that there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to any of the Plaintiffs’ claims. The district court heard oral argument on the motion and granted the motion in favor of the Defendants. The district court then entered judgment in favor of the Defendants, finding the Defendants’ actions reasonable and also entitled to qualified immunity. The Plaintiffs appealed the judgment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The threshold issue for the court of appeals was whether the killing of a dog constitutes a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Prior to the court’s decision, the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit had not decided on that issue.
In agreement with every other circuit that has addressed the issue, the court of appeals held that a dog is property, and the unreasonable seizure of that property is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Based on the precedent set forth by the court’s sister circuits, the court of appeals held that the use of deadly force against a pet is reasonable only if the pet poses imminent danger and the use of force is unavoidable. Because of this precedent, the court determined that an individual’s property right in his or her dog was clearly established in 2013 when the conduct in question occurred.
Because the Defendants moved for summary judgment, the Plaintiffs needed to provide admissible evidence that would create a genuine dispute of material fact allowing a reasonable jury to determine that the seizure was more intrusive than necessary. Given Jones’s criminal history, the officers found it likely that other members of the gang could be in the residence during the raid. When searching the residence, the officers determined that the dogs threatened their safety. The court also noted that despite having notice of the dogs, the officers had no meaningful time to formulate a plan on how to deal with the dogs. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, the court of appeals determined that the officers acted reasonably in shooting the dogs.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.
Read the full case: Brown v. Battle Creek Police Dep’t
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