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Officers who killed two pit bulls during a drug raid in 2013 have qualified immunity, the Sixth Circuit ruled recently. The dogs were shot multiple times as police in Battle Creek, Michigan, executed a search warrant. Afterwards, the dogs' owners sued, alleging that the pooch killing was an unconstitutional seizure of property under the Fourth Amendment.
It's a mixed ruling for fans of man's best friend. Though the Sixth ruled that unreasonably shooting a dog is a Fourth Amendment violation, it found the shootings reasonable here, given testimony that the dogs were barking and had lunged at officers.
The two pit bulls were killed on April 17, 2013, when police searched the house of Danielle Nesbitt. Police suspected that Vincent Jones, a man with a long criminal history and gang affiliations, was dealing drugs out of Nesbitt's house. Nesbitt's mother, Cheryl Brown, and Mark Brown lived in her basement, with their two dogs.
When the search warrant was executed that day, police officers detained Mark Brown as he was leaving the house, Brown having come by from work to let the dogs out. Brown's two pit bulls could be seen from the window. According to Brown, they were silent. According to officers, they were digging, pawing, and jumping.
When police broke down the door, the larger of the two dogs was shot almost immediately, after allegedly lunging at an officer. That dog, injured but not dead, slunk to the basement, where the other pit bull had also fled. When officers went to search the basement, they shot the dog again, killing it. The second dog was standing still in the basement, barking. An officer then shot that second dog, who slunk to the corner before another she was shot again, to "put her out of her misery."
The Browns brought a section 1983 suit against the officers, alleging that the police had violated the Fourth Amendment by unconstitutionally seizing their dogs.
The Sixth Circuit agreed that dogs are property and that their unreasonable seizure is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Though the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit had not addressed the question before, many other circuits had, and each held the same as the Sixth did in this case -- that unreasonably shooting a dog could be a constitutional violation. Given that unanimity, "we hold that this right was clearly established" when the dogs were shot in 2013, the court said.
But the seizure of the dogs is only a constitutional violation when it is unreasonable, the Sixth explained, and that was not the case here. Shooting a dog when executing a warrant is reasonable when "given the totality of the circumstances and viewed from the perspective of an objectively reasonable officer, the dog poses an imminent threat to the officer's safety," the court stated. Under that standard, the officers acted reasonably.
Vincent Jones posed a serious safety threat, due to his criminal history and gang affiliations, the court said. Though Jones was detained, it was possible that other gang members could be in the residence. These conditions, taken together with officers' testimony that the dogs lunged and barked, were enough to justify the shooting.
The court further rejected the dog owners' claim that the city of Battle Creek was municipally liable for the officers' actions, having failed to properly train them on how to recognize and respond to dogs. The city can't be liable, the Sixth said, since there was no constitutional violation. "The seizures of the dogs in this case were reasonable given the specific circumstances surrounding the raid," the court concluded.
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