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Police Can't Shoot Unlicensed Dogs During Search

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Pet owners may sue police who shot and killed their dogs during a home search, a federal appeals court said.

In Smith v. City of Detroit, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said police acted unreasonably when they shot two pit bulls and a Rottweiler. A divided panel reversed a trial judge who said the owners had no right to sue because their dogs were unlicensed.

The issue revolves around whether pet owners have a possessory interest in unlicensed animals under the Fourth Amendment. But Detroit has a bigger dog problem -- there are about 50,000 strays roaming its streets.


The Sixth District has been dealing with Michigan's dog problem for years. The appeals court has decided at least three dog-shooting cases since December 2016.

In one case, the appellate court said police had a qualified immunity to shoot dogs during a drug raid. In another, the panel said police must have a warrant to enter private property and do it.

In the latest case, police had a warrant to search a home for drugs. When they entered, police said the dogs attacked them.

However, the owners said that's not how it happened. Police shot one dog through a closed door. One officer, it turned out, has shot at least 69 animals.

69 Animals

The Sixth Circuit panel split in their decision. Judge Alice Batchelder said the officers had a qualified immunity to shoot.

"The majority's constitutional analysis misinterprets the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment cases and threatens to extend sweeping monetary liability to officers who seize contraband during searches and to the municipalities that employ them," she wrote.

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