Detroit Argues Dogs Killed in Drug Raid Were 'Contraband' Because They Were Unlicensed

Sorry, Detroit says, no Fourth Amendment protections against police shooting your dog if it's not licensed.


Uli Deck/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

The city of Detroit argued in a recently filed court motion that a woman can't sue police for shooting three of her dogs during a drug raid because the animals were unlicensed "contraband."

Nikita Smith filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year against the Detroit Police Department after a narcotics raid left three of her dogs shot to death. The lawsuit characterized the police as a "dog death squad" and claimed officers shot one of her dogs through a closed bathroom door. Graphic photos from the raid on Smith's house showed one dog laying dead in the blood-soaked bathroom.

Her case is only one of several lawsuits that have been filed against the Detroit Police Department (DPD) for dog shootings over the past two years. A Reason investigation last year found the DPD's Major Violators Unit, which conducts drug raids in the city, has a track record of leaving dead dogs in its wake. One officer alone had shot 69 dogs over the course of his career, according to public records.

Pets are considered property under the Fourth Amendment, protecting them from unlawful seizure (read: killing) by law enforcement. However, lawyers for the city of Detroit argue in a March 15 motion for summary judgement in Smith's suit that her dogs were unlicensed, and therefore she does not have a legitimate property interest in the animals.

According to the Detroit Metro Times, Michigan law requires dogs to be licensed to prove they have been vaccinated against rabies. The city's motion compares Smith to a minor with an alcoholic beverage, or a person with a bag of pot without a medical marijuana card, neither of whom would have a legitimate property interest protecting them from police seizures.

"Without being licensed, an unlicensed dog is property which is unlawful to possess or contraband," the city argues. "As the courts have indicated, there is no legitimate property interest protected by the 4th Amendment in contraband."

Smith's lawyer, Chris Olson, says the city's argument doesn't hold water.

"There is no case that holds that there is no legitimate property interest in unlicensed dogs, period. None," Smith says. "Which is why they didn't cite any. Second, Michigan's Dog Law of 1919 does not support their argument, either, and then there's that thing we're all familiar with called the Supremacy Clause, which makes it impossible for a city or state law to trump the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment is the supreme law of land."

The city's motion also disputes Smith's narrative of events and says the dogs were charging officers when they were shot.

Police arrested Smith for possession of marijuana, but the charges were dropped when officers failed to appear at her court date.