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Is It Legal for Cops to Shoot Unlicensed Dogs?

Pets shouldn't be treated as contraband.

Do unlicensed dogs have constitutional protections against being shot by police? It depends which federal judge in Michigan you ask.

A 2017 Reason investigation found narcotics raids in Detroit left a disturbing number of dead canines in their wake. Pets are considered property under the Fourth Amendment, shielding them from unlawful seizure by law enforcement. Although it takes a lot to prove a police shooting of a dog was unreasonable, cities have still paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars, more than $1 million in one instance, to settle such lawsuits.

In an effort to stymie those suits, lawyers representing Detroit have deployed a novel legal argument: If a dog is unlicensed, it counts as "contraband" under the Fourth Amendment, and its owner has no legitimate property interest in it.

In one case, Detroit compared Nikita Smith, whose three unlicensed dogs were shot by police during a marijuana raid, to a minor with an alcoholic beverage. The 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. (Smith is appealing that ruling.)

This year, a different federal judge came to the opposite conclusion. Nicole Motyka and her husband are suing the Detroit Police Department for shooting two of their pit bulls during a marijuana raid. Motyka's husband, a state-licensed medical marijuana caregiver, says the animals were behind a barrier in the kitchen when they were shot. Detroit argued that because one of the dogs was unlicensed, the couple had no standing to sue. But U.S District Judge Arthur Tarnow, in an opinion allowing the lawsuit to proceed, wrote that the city's argument was "misplaced."

Oral arguments in Smith's case were heard by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in April; a panel of federal judges will soon rule on whether an animal ceases to be protected from wanton state violence because of its legal status in the eyes of a city.

The answer may amount to little more than a footnote in the annals of Fourth Amendment case law, but it will be quite important to pet owners like Motyka and the dogs they love.

Photo Credit: Peter Castleton/Creative Commons

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  • SQRLSY One||

    So if you have no marriage license, can they shoot your girlfriend?

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    SHE WAS COMING RIGHT AT ME!

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    If you can squash a cockroach or swat a fly, bash a snake or boil ants, trap a mouse or flush a goldfish, you should be free to kill any dog that is not another person's property, that is on your property, or that is causing a problem such as threatening a person, destroying property, or the like..

    Then, you should be free to eat it.

    I have never understood snowflake status for dogs, cats, horses, and other animals claimed to be entitled to special privilege.

  • jcw||

    Sounds like I should stop walking my dog in your neighborhood.

  • Longtobefree||

    Sounds like you should have a second amendment when you walk your dog in the neighborhood where he lives.
    (pretty damn hard to get around the phrase 'his neighborhood' just because he does not own it)

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Not if it is leashed and you keep it off my property.

  • Lowdog||

    Wow, so not only are you borderline retarded, you are borderline personality disordered. Lol

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    Borderline?

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Please explain why a dog on my property would be entitled to any more legal or moral standing than a deer, a raccoon, a snake, or a cockroach.

    Please explain why people (those residing in a free society, at least) should be able to eat pork, beef, foie gras, eel, crickets, chicken, venison, or veal but not dog, horse, or cat.

    Be sure to emphasize your feelings.

  • No Longer Amused||

    Because dogs are people, and, unfortunately, you aren't.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    We should feel sorry for those people but not accept or respect their delusion.

  • mlwjr||

    If you can discriminate against someone for their political beliefs you should be able to discriminate against another person for any reason.

    I have never understood snowflake status for race, gender, religion, or other categories entitled to special privileged.

  • ||

    I have never understood snowflake status for dogs, cats, horses, and other animals claimed to be entitled to special privilege.

    As distinct from any other property, I agree. If your dog doesn't have a license it either needs to be under your direct supervision or securely stored on your property. Otherwise, it's on my property, unable to even possibly be ascribed to an owner, and mine to deal with as I see fit. Just as if an unregistered car, boat, or handgun showed up on my property.

    Of course, for the majority of the cases in question, we are or were talking about dogs securely stored on the owner's property.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    If a dog is properly secured, is on its owner's real property, and constitutes no threat, it should not be shot. It should be respected as the owner's property.

  • macsnafu||

    These are dogs that are on someone's private property, and the most egregious stories are the ones where the dogs were secured or behind a barrier, and thus, no real threat to the police who shot them.

    Besides, do you really want to see policemen eating dogs?

  • croaker||

    I want to see police eating a giant bag of dicks.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Horrible idea. Policemen shooting dogs all the time is bad enough. Do you really want the cops collecting dicks from every male suspect they encounter until they have a giant bagfull to eat?

  • No Longer Amused||

    This is because you are non-sentient.

  • Chereth Cutestory maritime aty||

    "If you can squash a cockroach or swat a fly, bash a snake or boil ants, trap a mouse or flush a goldfish, you should be free to kill any dog that is not another person's property, that is on your property, or that is causing a problem such as threatening a person, destroying property, or the like.."

    Sounds like something a psychopath would say.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Because a dog is better than a deer, mouse, pig, or cow.

    You sound like a thoroughgoing dope.

  • Paloma||

    So dogfighting should be a legitimate sport?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I can imagine a cop yelling "show me your papers!" as he takes aim of the dog.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    "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 dare you think you have property rights. You only have property rights insofar as government almighty has granted you a permission slip to have it.

    Could they shoot my TV during a search? It's not registered with the state after all.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Could they shoot my TV during a search?"

    Only if they felt threatened by it! Like, if there's an image of a scary dog on the screen... Be careful what channels you're watching!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Donut commercials might be considered a distraction. BOOM!
    Police Academy might be considered an insult. BOOM!
    Dragnet might be too factual, ma'am. BOOM!

  • Rhywun||

    Yes - and the guy working on your lawn, too.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Could they shoot my TV during a search? ""

    Well they could dismantle it looking for drugs to the point it can no longer function.

  • sarcasmic||

    If the dogs don't have their papers then they're illegal. They should be separated from their families at the least. Or just shot. After all, they're illegal. They don't have any rights.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Chihuahuas hardest hit.

    Yo quiero Taco Bell! Aye de mi! Run for the border!

  • sarcasmic||

    Not really. They're small and most cops are lousy shots.

  • ||

    They should be separated from their families at the least.

    You mean separated from their families *again*.

  • Paloma||

    They should have social security numbers!

  • H. Farnham||

    Off Topic, and because I'm sure Reason won't cover the IMPORTANT news:

    http://www.cjonline.com/news/2.....off-ballot

    I might get the opportunity to vote for Vermin Supreme... as long as The Man doesn't keep him down.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Popehat's somewhat erratic sidekick ranted on this.

  • H. Farnham||

    Damn, I just read your link (of course I didn't read the one I provided). Apparently it's just the Republican Primary he's trying to stay on the ballot for. Kansas has closed primaries, so I'd have to join a political party in order to vote for him... a real Sophie's Choice.

  • Citizen X||

    Even if he gets on the ballot in Kansas, and i hope he does, i'm still writing him in for Virginia Senator as well.

  • H. Farnham||

    Hey his odds of winning in Virginia are close to Gary Johnson's were for POTUS, and I voted for that guy.

  • Citizen X||

    The Democratic and Republican candidates are both from Minnesota, so it's not like actually being from Virginia matters.

  • Longtobefree||

    Sadly true. Virginia stopped being Virginia decades ago.

  • macsnafu||

    Yes, I can see how many people seem to think that property rights are unimportant issues.

  • Ben of Houston||

    Did the police have any reason to think that the dogs were unlicensed at the time? If they didn't know, then that is irrelevant, and the very act of discharging a firearm on my property without the owner's permission is a serious breach of my property and safety. If they did have time to ask and find out, then they obviously were not in any immediate danger, and it was reckless and needless destruction.

  • Citizen X||

    and the very act of discharging a firearm on my property without the owner's permission is a serious breach of my property and safety

    Yeah, but who are you gonna call about that? The cops?

  • Rich||

    a different federal judge came to the opposite conclusion.

    So both rulings were nullified and both judges fired, right? RIGHT?!

  • gaoxiaen||

    The pro-shooting judge is probably on the short list for the SC(R)OTU(M)S.

  • Rich||

    "When a person owns a dog that is unlicensed"

    It depends on what the meaning of "owns" is.

  • gaoxiaen||

    That's a great scene.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Is It Legal for Cops to Shoot Unlicensed Dogs?

    Yes, probably. Should it be? No.

  • ||

    Should it be? No.

    Depends on the unlicensed dog. As someone who's had to do it myself, I'm totally cool with cops shooting feral or other dogs. Seems well within the purview of 'serve and protect'. Cops raiding a home, finding unlicensed animals there, and executing them is a different story.

  • macsnafu||

    Geez, shooting dogs that are behind a barrier? Maybe the prosecuting attorneys should get a clue and realize that police are only justified in shooting dogs when they are an *actual threat* to policeman, and not just because a policeman feels like being a dick to the "alleged" perpetrators (suspects are not guilty until proven so in a court of law). But that would mean recognizing that laws have meaning and purpose beyond simply allowing government to act as it pleases.

  • Longtobefree||

    Agreed. how about a clear standard? No blood, no shooting.

  • Derp-o-Matic 6000||

    Dogging without a license? Define death sentence

  • Juice||

    Did we all notice that the cops are fighting to keep their power to shoot dogs at will? As if they cherish this power and want to do anything to preserve it?

  • Citizen X||

    Yep. I don't think any regular readers of Reason were surprised by that.

  • Longtobefree||

    It's a trap.
    Shooting the dogs is to get people used to firearm use during (drug?) raids, regardless of the address on the warrant, if any.
    Next comes the part where the dog does not get shot, the guilty alleged druggie gets shot by mistake when they shoot at the dog.

  • ||

    Next comes the part where the dog does not get shot, the guilty alleged druggie gets shot by mistake when they shoot at the dog.

    Before you know it cops will be carrying around dead, unlicensed throwdown dogs so they can kill with impunity.

  • Longtobefree||

    Looked into a cop's trunk lately?

  • The Last American Hero||

    Since when has legality made a difference when it comes to cops shooting things?

  • No Longer Amused||

    Shoot my dog and I'm coming after you and your entire family.

  • ace_m82||

    Bob Lee Swagger before declaring war on a good portion of the Federal government:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4dX0YCvtDg

  • Paloma||

    Maybe they could make it kind of an eye for an eye kid of thing? If a cop shoots your dog, you get to shoot his K-9 unit dog. And he has to watch. What could be more fair?

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