A federal judge ruled Wednesday that a Michigan woman has no basis to sue the Detroit Police Department (DPD) for shooting her three dogs because they were not properly licensed.
U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Detroit resident Nikita Smith last last year after a marijuana raid by Detroit police left her three dogs shot to death.
The ruling is the first time a federal court has considered the question of whether an unlicensed pet—in violation of city or state code—is protected property under the Fourth Amendment. Federal courts have established that pets are protected from unreasonable seizures (read: killing) by police, but the city of Detroit argued in a motion in March that Smith's dogs, because they were unlicensed, were "contraband" for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, meaning she had no legitimate property interest in them and therefore no basis to sue the officers or department.
In his Wednesday opinion Steeh agreed.
"The Court is aware that this conclusion may not sit well with dog owners and animal lovers in general," the judge wrote. "The reason for any unease stems from the fact that while pet owners consider their pets to be family members, the law considers pets to be property."
"The requirements of the Michigan Dog Law and the Detroit City Code, including that all dogs be current with their rabies vaccines, exist to safeguard the public from dangerous animals," he continued. "When a person owns a dog that is unlicensed, in the eyes of the law it is no different than owning any other type of illegal property or contraband. Without any legitimate possessory interest in the dogs, there can be no violation of the Fourth Amendment."
And without any Fourth Amendment violation, Steeh continued, there is no basis for a civil rights claim against the city. Steeh also ruled that Smith's suit would have been dismissed even if she had a cognizable property interest in the dogs, finding that the animals presented an imminent threat to the officers.
Smith's lawsuit characterized the Detroit police officers who raided her house as a "dog death squad." She claimed officers shot one of her pets through a closed bathroom door. Graphic photos from the raid on Smith's house showed the dog lying dead in a blood-soaked bathroom.
Smith's case is only one of several lawsuits that have been filed against the DPD for dog shootings over the past two years. The city of Detroit settled one of those suits for $100,000 after dash cam video showed an officer shooting a man's dog while it was chained to a fence. It was also one of three lawsuits against DPD for shooting dogs during marijuana raids. The most recent was filed in June after DPD officers allegedly shot a couple's dogs while the animals were behind a backyard fence.
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 had shot 39 dogs over the course of his career before the raid on Smith's house, according to public records.
That officer is now up to 73 kills, according to the most recent records obtained by Reason.
Two other officers involved in the Smith raid testified during the trial that they had shot "fewer than 20" and "at least 19" dogs over the course of their careers.
The court's opinion notes that the "police officers conducting the search had not received any specific training on how to handle animal encounters during raids."
The ruling also noted that Detroit police supervisors found that the shooting of Smith's dogs by officers were all justified. "However, as in many other cases, the ratifying officers did so without speaking to the officers about what had transpired," the court wrote.
Reason's review of "destruction of animal" reports filed by Detroit police officers did not find a single instance where a supervisor found that a dog shooting was unjustified.
Detroit police obtained a search warrant for Smith's residence after receiving a tip that marijuana was being sold out of it. Police confiscated 25 grams of marijuana as a result of the raid, and Smith was charged with a misdemeanor.
However, the case against her was later dismissed when officers failed to appear at her court hearing.
Neither an attorney for Smith nor the Detroit Police Department were immediately available for comment.