Court: Police Can't Shoot Unlicensed Dogs With Impunity

"Just as the police cannot destroy every unlicensed car or gun on the spot, they cannot kill every unlicensed dog on the spot."


Benjamin Beytekin/picture alliance / Benjamin Beyt/Newscom

A federal appeals court ruled today that Detroit police didn't have carte blanche to shoot a woman's dogs during a drug raid simply because they weren't licensed.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a lower court ruling in the case of Nikita Smith, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Detroit Police Department after a narcotics raid left three of her dogs dead. A federal judge dismissed Smith's lawsuit last year, ruling that her dogs, because they were unlicensed, amounted to "contraband" under the Fourth Amendment.

In its ruling, the Sixth Circuit declared that not only was Smith entitled to some process under Michigan law before her dogs were "seized" (read: killed), but that her dogs, even if unlicensed, were still protected from unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

"By guaranteeing process to dog owners before their unlicensed dogs are killed, Michigan law makes clear that the owners retain a possessory interest in their dogs," the appeals court wrote. "This is particularly so in the context of everyday property that is not inherently illegal, such as some drugs, but instead is subject to jurisdiction-specific licensing or registration requirements, such as cars or boats or guns. Just as the police cannot destroy every unlicensed car or gun on the spot, they cannot kill every unlicensed dog on the spot."

The case is the first time federal courts have considered whether an unlicensed pet—in violation of city or state code—is protected property under the Fourth Amendment. Courts have previously established that pets are protected from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

"Today's opinion is enormously important because, as a practical matter, the vast majority of dogs are not licensed and police shoot dogs every day in a this country. The police-dog-shooting problem is especially bad in the City of Detroit," Smith's lawyer Chris Olson says. "Had the Court affirmed the district court's decision, police officers in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee could summarily execute any dog without recourse in the event that the officers, like the defendants in this case, later discovered that the dog was not licensed. The opinion establishes that pet owners' Fourth Amendment rights do not depend on a license. More importantly, the opinion foreclosed a post hoc 'get out of jail free card' for police officers that unreasonably shoot dogs every day in this country."

Smith's lawsuit characterized the police as a "dog death squad" and claimed officers shot one of her pets through a closed bathroom door. Graphic photos from the raid on Smith's house showed one dog laying dead in the blood-soaked bathroom.

In such cases, police departments typically argue that an officer's actions were reasonable under the circumstances—and courts give much deference to those arguments. But in Smith's case, the City of Detroit also adopted a novel legal argument: that since Smith's dogs were unlicensed, she didn't have a legitimate property interest in them and therefore could not bring a Fourth Amendment claim against the officers. Lawyers for Detroit compared Smith to a minor holding an alcoholic beverage.

A U.S. District Court judge agreed. "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," U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled last year.

But in another Fourth Amendment lawsuit—brought by Nicole Motyka and Joel Castro, whose two dogs were shot by Detroit police during a marijuana raid—a different federal judge came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that Detroit's argument was "misplaced." Motyka's lawsuit has been on hold awaiting today's Sixth Circuit opinion.

Smith and Motyka's cases are part of a string of lawsuits that have been filed against the Detroit Police Department for dog shootings over the past two years. A Reason investigation last year found the department's Major Violators Unit, which conducts drug raids in the city, has a track record of leaving dead dogs in its wake.

Earlier this year, Detroit paid $225,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Kenneth Savage and Ashley Franklin, who claimed Detroit police officers shot their three dogs while the animals were enclosed behind an 8-foot-tall fence—all so the officers could confiscate several potted marijuana plants in the backyard.

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  1. Look, if cops can’t shot dogs with impunity, then what point is there to becoming a cop?

    We already have shortages of qualified officers, let’s not make it worse.

    1. Well, I think they’re still occasionally allowed to shoot people with impunity. So there’s that.

    2. Well, such a shortage sure would go a long way to explaning the plethora of lying, trigger happy douchebags that wear PD blue.

      I have had nothing but good interactions with cops, with one exception who was loathed by his own department. But I’m white, reasonably wealthy, and (because of gout, not moral superiority) unlikely to be drunk. I don’t live in the kind of neighnborhood where copsmare likely to be living out their Eliot Ness fantasies at the wrong address. I don’t play poker at the VFW hall. And I’ve been lucky.

      Body cams are probably going to clear out a lot of the problem, on both sides, provided that there is a presumption that if there SHOULD be video and the cops can’t produce it, then they cops are lying about something.

      Of course we could always put an end to the War On Drugs. It costs a lot, doesn’t seem to accomplish much good, and would free Law Enforcement to do something worthwhile if it were dead.


      1. “provided that there is a presumption that if there SHOULD be video and the cops can’t produce it, then they cops are lying about something.”

        This is important. I caught a possession charge in 2006, thanks to a very questionable search. There was a dash cam, but apparently it had stopped working, and there was “no money in the budget” to maintain it. My lawyer told me that the state police had talked up the dash cams when they first came out, but after footage started helping defendants, the cameras started to mysteriously fail all across the state.

    3. What, does this court want anarchy? How can we have law and order and be safe if they can’t shoot dogs on sight? Why do they hate America and freedom? Why are they anti-cop?

  2. Well that’s not fair. The further up the chain the chain you go, the less likely courts and law enforcement are reaping any benefits from local licensing schemes.

  3. Dogs have more protection against the Thug Pigs then people ? Got it .

  4. The only reason cops shoot dogs is to cause emotional anguish. They know that people love their pets, and that’s why they kill them. They’re sadists.

    1. I think “only reason” is a bit of hyperbole. I’m sure at some point some cop has been attacked by a dog and was within his rights to shoot it. The problem is, it’s human nature to abuse authority, and now we’re at the point where police shoot dogs for barking at them through closed bathroom doors because up to now there have been basically no repercussions.

      1. Bingo. Of course, since PETA doesn’t think people should own pets, they are unlikely to jump on this. Thereby reinforcing my belief that their are oxygen thieves.

        1. People Eating Tasty Animals are unlikely to be overly concerned about the coppers getting their hands soundly thwacked with a police issue baton when they DO shoot a dog just for sport. Many of these same PETA folk, however, do have dogs, and make good use of them for various functions. Sounding off when the dirty coppers come round looking for trouble to make is one such function. I’m sure most People Eating Tasty ANimals would take a dim view of the Boizin Blew killing anything unnecessarily.

    2. They do it to enforce authority. “We’ll shoot your dog, we’ll shoot you next.”

      Personally, I’m perfectly cool with a pig getting savaged to death as the price of a raid. It would teach them to be choosy.

  5. “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,” U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled last year.

    How in hell could this judge possibly come to this conclusion?

    So the cops “destroy” all drugs during a raid before there’s a trial?

    1. So the cops “destroy” all drugs during a raid before there’s a trial?

      They only “destroy” what they can consume or sell before the trial.

      1. Hmmm..new synonym pair:

        destroy, and relocate. ,
        Nice work there.

  6. I firmly believe that the vast majority of police officers are good people.
    Having said that, for those that engage in this type of behavior or worse, it’d be a damn shame if something really awful happened to them. A damn shame.

    1. I firmly believe that the vast majority of police officers are good people.

      You’d be surprised then.

      1. I would not be.
        I know several, and their honest evaluation of their fellow cops (for better and for worse).

        Although I admittedly don’t know any from agencies in the largest metro areas that have reputations (Detroit, Chicago, LA, New York).

        1. All that aside, this will stop when (and only when) there are consequences.
          If courts of law and departments themselves don’t provide the consequences, that kinda starts to narrow down where those consequences will come from.

          1. If good cops existed and were the majority, they would make work very unpleasant for bad cops, causing them to quit. Happens all the time in other occupations. Don’t really need the boss to fire them if the workers can make life so miserable that they leave on their own.

            1. it isn’t that easy. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have only had ONE bad interaction with a Cop (not counting some where I was in the wrong and said so). His department LOATHED him. The town was building a case to fire his ass as quickly as they could. But the Union didn’t care. Until he was caught unquestionably breaking the law (instead of simply being a jerk and abusing his authority in annoying ways), he couldn’t be fired…and even when he WAS caught, the unions would drag the fight out as long as they could. Actions taken against him would get the taker in trouble with the union.

              I do hope he’s gone now. It was some years back, when I was (a wholly inadequate) head of security for a small outlet mall in NJ, and I don’t go back there much.

              1. Every interaction I’ve had has been bad. I’m as polite as possible, have never been arrested, and every time, the cop was stupid, dishonest or thuggish. Or all of the above.

                Rural, urban, state.

                They’re welfare bums with guns, nothing more.

      2. Not really (see my post above), but the bad ones get away with far too much.

        Of course, OTOH, the main thrust of Black Lives Matter does seem to focus on cops shooting career criminals.

        So, as is usual in politics, both of the loudest sides of an argument are full of dung.

    2. I firmly believe that the vast majority of police officers are good people.

      I used to think that as well. Thing is, if the majority of police officers were good people, then the bad people would be out of place. They wouldn’t be welcome. They would be restrained, reported, and fired. Bad cops do bad things over and over and over, and nothing else happens. Supposedly good cops can always be counted on to cover for the bad ones. Any cop who tries to do the right thing will get the Serpico treatment. So no, there really aren’t any good cops. Even if they don’t engage in bad behavior, they can still be counted on to turn away and cover it up. That makes them bad people.

      1. I’m still split. I think you have to build up a cop culture and even a community of officers. The small town cop may abuse his authority, but he’s at least got to prioritize his abuses relative to the desires of his peers and the community at large.

        When your peer group is as likely to shoot you for coming onto their property and shooting their dog as you are to shoot them, you tend to behave a little differently than when your peer group is officers and their families, several generations deep, all of whom understand that coming home safe is far more important than some poor yutz’s dog.

    3. All cops enforce immoral laws so they are all bad people. They might think they are doing good but they aren’t.

      1. It’s like the good members of the mob, who only run numbers and keep books, but don’t do kneecappings.

    4. I have yet to hear a cop come out against civil asset forfeiture, so basically they’re all thieves until proven otherwise. Much like politics, you can’t really succeed in the profession if you’re a ‘good person’.

  7. Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    Private property shall not be taken without just compensation.

    If the Government takes $1000 from someone, they owe them $1000.

    If the government takes a dog’s life, they owe that owner just compensation.

    1. The problem with leaving it just at “just compensation” is that property, and especially pets, often has more meaning to the owner than just its monetary value. As long as the government has essentially an infinite budget this practice will keep going forever.

      If you don’t punish the officers criminally (if found guilty) then it’ll never end.

      1. I would cosmder the cop’s life reasonable recompense.

        1. Well, it’s a start.

      2. the hiring agency of the bad apple trigger happy copper needs to pay out the compensation to the former pet owner. THEN that agency needs to take that public money OUT of the salary of the offending copper. So much a month until repaid in full, and if he retires before its paid off, it comes out of his pension. A neutral court, not part of the government of the jurisdiction in which the offense occurred, shall govern setting the award for the loss. That would be for a first offense. For any subsequent incident, the offending officer WILL be criminally charged. And restoration WILL be part of his sentence. A few coppers being forced to sell off their house, nice car, gun collection, mountain cabin property, to restore the loss HE created, this would cease to be a problem in just a couple months.

      3. Yes, punish them criminally – unlawful destruction of live property under color of authority. Also, civil tort for emotional distress by unlawful destruction of property. Create new law if necessary.

  8. If it was a bad shoot, one would think that the cops would be guilty of animal cruelty as well, but I suspect they’re never going to face charges for that.

    Also: was her door unlicensed too, because they allegedly blew holes in that

    1. If they weren’t cruel they wouldn’t get hired. Depraved indifference is the job description.

  9. “”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,” U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh ruled last year.”

    I’m a big fan of this apparent theory that if I’m driving an unregistered vehicle the cops have the right to set my car on fire without due process

    1. They wouldn’t just set your car on fire, are you crazy? It’s a perfect opportunity for a drone strike.

      1. No. They’ll steal it and then sell it. Use the money to buy hookers and blow.

        1. That was a joke. They steal the blow and rape the hookers.

          1. …and pocket the money.

      2. Drone strikes don’t give the same adrenaline rush. The same tactile feel. They ventilate the car and a few of the surrounding houses and then say, “Sorry we thought you were Chris Dorner.

  10. Why are cops free from animal abuse laws is my question?

    1. Because “go fuck yourself,” that’s why

    2. Cops are free from all laws. All that matters is department policy. If there is nothing in department policy stating that they can’t go around killing dogs for fun, then they’re gonna kill dogs for fun. If they’re nothing in department policy that says they can’t rape women in their custody, then they’re gonna rape women in custody. If there’s nothing in department policy that says they can’t shoot unarmed people in the back as they run away, then they’re gonna open fire on anyone who runs away.

      1. Actually, they occasionally get prosecuted for stuff like that. It’s the law that stops them, not department policy.

  11. Lawyers for Detroit compared Smith to a minor holding an alcoholic beverage

    Do they not hear the words as they come out their mouths?

  12. So how does this play into California gun confiscation?
    Is the due process the knock on the door?

    1. One of my handguns has a sticker on the box that says it’s illegal in California. Not on the list I guess. Suppose that means the cops could just take it without compensation because it’s illegal, and illegal property isn’t really property. Or something. Doesn’t really matter though. You couldn’t pay me to live in that shithole.

      1. Per Federal Law, YOU should be able to transport that gun, unloaded and in a locked hard sided container, and with the ammunition in a second locked hard sided container, through the State from one end to the other…. but I would not try it. They seem to be a law unto themselves these days.

    2. No, in California the “due process” is the status of being present within the state.

      Just go ask their new Attorney General, Mr. Beast. He’s worse than the Wicked Witch of the West, now infecting the District of Corruption.

  13. Well of course cops can kill unlicensed dogs.
    That’s why they carry guns.

  14. I’m just amazed that a federal judge was able to arrive at the obvious legal conclusion, that the 4th Amendment says what it means.

    And cops should face criminal charges when they kill someone’s pets, unless they were in imminent danger at the time of the shooting. Cash settlements paid by taxpayers can’t replace a pet’s life.

  15. The Ruby Ridge Standoff and the Waco Siege started with the raiding police shooting a dog with its back to the shooter (Ruby Ridge) or dogs.inside a fenced in kennel (Waco).

    Excusing unnecessary shooting of people’s dogs by police is not contributing to keeping the peace, just the opposite.

  16. News flash for the stupid lawyer… a minor child holding an alcoholic beverage in his own home breaks no law. A minor child holding one in public is not under a death sentence. Other non-lethal recourse exists.

    The non-licensed condition of any given animal does not change the FACT that that critter is still personal property, and no property can be taken without due process, and then only with just compensation. There exist, just as in the hypothetical case of the minor child holding an alcoholic beverage in a public place, other remedies for the non-licensed condition of the dog. The dog catcher is smart enough to know that. Seems summa dese here dirty coppers aren’t even smart enough to be dog catchers. They CERTAINLY should not be allowed in public whilst armed. They’ve proven themselves untrustworthy to have a gun in public. Perhaps they should be assigned custodians after they are disarmed? Anyone not fit to be loose in public WITH a gun is not fit to be on the loose in public WITHOUT one.

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