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If Police Shoot Your Dog, Can You Sue?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

For various reasons, police sometimes shoot and kill dogs. But their owners typically have recourse to sue.

You probably won't see a police officer serve any jail time for shooting your dog, but you can make him or her pay for it in court. However, police officers have built-in legal defenses to suit.

So when police shoot your dog, when can you sue?

Excessive Force, Illegal Seizure

Because dogs aren't people, they lack Fourth Amendment rights and are considered "property" under the law.

This means that unlike a normal case of police brutality, the standards of probable cause and reasonability that apply to use of force on humans do not transfer to dogs. So suing police for shooting your dog must be done under a theory of illegal seizure, essentially claiming that your property (i.e., your dog) was illegally seized by police.

Sometimes there will be both human and dog victims of police misconduct, so both excessive force and illegal seizure claims can be made. In one such case, a Chicago jury awarded a family $243,000 when an officer killed their 9-year-old Labrador, as well as $90,000 for mistreating one of its owners.

Watching an officer kill your dog can potentially be the basis for an emotional distress claim under this illegal seizure foundation. Likewise, if police were unlawfully present on your property when your dog was shot, thus violating your Fourth Amendment rights, you may sue.

Qualified Immunity and Officer Safety

There are two legal hurdles you'll have to overcome in order to successfully sue a police officer for killing your dog, namely:

  1. Did the officer violate your clearly established constitutional rights?
  2. Was the dog a threat to officer safety?

The first question relates to qualified immunity. An officer may be immune to lawsuits as long as he or she is acting in good faith to not violate a person's constitutional rights. For dog-shooting cases, this means your Fourth Amendment rights, so an illegal entry or illegal arrest would suffice.

The question of officer safety is much more slippery. Courts may defer to an officer's training and experience in cases when they feel threatened enough to use force on an animal. Unless the officer clearly ignored police procedure in dealing with animal threats, this may be a hard factual battle.

But don't give up hope. You can sue and even win when police shoot and kill your dog -- though you generally have to file a government tort claim first before you can proceed with a lawsuit. Because suing the police can get complicated, consulting an experienced personal injury lawyer is probably your best bet.

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