Police Shooting of Dogs

Here’s the scenario: The police are called to a disturbance (or pull over a vehicle) and see a dog they deem a “threat.”

May an officer draw his weapon and shoot the dog?  Remember, he has “law and order” on his side; it’s his job to maintain peace and prevent harm to the community.   Plus certain breeds are targeted as perpetual threats:  pit bull, German shepherd, Rottweiler, etc.

The answer is “no.”  The cop may not shoot first and ask questions later.   He should call animal control if an animal presents a threat, unless it becomes necessary to immediately restrain the dog in the defense of himself or another.

What remedies exist on the part of the dog owner?   Pets, although we love them like people, are considered “property.”    The Pennsylvania courts have not yet permitted the right to collect for “pain and suffering” or the loss of companionship for the loss of a pet.

That said, the pet owner may be entitled to a substantial recovery for:

  • Attorney fees for a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for governmental misconduct (and those can be substantial);

  • Emotional distress if the owner himself was in the zone of danger created by the discharge of a firearm;

  • A violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America for the unlawful “taking” of property.

  • A recovery for economic value of a dog, including replacement cost and/or cost for veterinary treatment for the shooting at issue.

  • A recovery for any harm the pet owner suffered to himself or his other property.

  • Punitive damages for reckless conduct.

Furthermore, both the police officer himself and the governmental entity for which he works (state, county, or municipality/borough) may be liable.  Certain immunities exist for duties performed in the scope of one’s public duties; however, the concept of immunity can be overcome if the government had a policy that deprived a person of his rights: such as a shoot first, ask questions later policy, or a failure to reprimand officers who repeatedly shoot dogs.   See  Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

Even if the municipality is immune, the individual may face liability, though he will what’s called a “qualified” immunity, which can be overcome, if the officer wrongfully deprives the owner of his property (a pet).   The standard is whether a reasonable police officer would have known he was wrongfully taking property (by shooting a dog).  This is where our lawyers excel in terms of proving a basis for a substantial recovery.

Each case turns on its facts.  Suppose a dog is running loose (in violation of local leash laws) and posing a public danger.  There, an officer might be justified in shooting that animal  but only if the dog appears “dangerous” and his actions could be considered reasonable by a court of law.  The court will consider whether the dog is growling, darting, running, biting, snapping, thrashing, or whether, conversely, the dog was wagging its tail, trotting, etc.

Importantly, a qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, meaning, the officer has the burden to both plead and prove this basis for a defense.   This give the officer (and his lawyer) work to do in court.  They can’t just sit back and say that the Plaintiff has not set forth sufficient facts or evidence, which bolsters the settlement value of these cases. In fact, the dog owner need not “need to plead facts showing the absence of such a defense.” Black v. Coughlin, 76 F.3d 72, 75 (2nd Cir. 1996).  An excellent article was written about this by Pamela Roudebush of our office.

Our Pittsburgh lawyers look for discrepancies in the police report: did the police offer talk to and note the comments of all the witnesses, or just those who support the police officer’s version of the facts? Was animal control called before shooting the dog? If not, why not? Was the dog owner permitted to restrain the dog peacefully?

Remember: The dog owner’s violation of dangerous dog law or local ordinances does not give an officer an excuse to shoot a dog. Thus, the dog owner can collect civil damages for the loss of his or her dog, even though the owner was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of failing to restrain, leash, or license his dog.

Our Pittsburgh attorneys are experienced at handling cases against police officers, boroughs, municipalities, and other governmental entities for excessive force and the shooting of pets.

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