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The Constitution Might Have Something To Say When Police Shoot Dogs

Filer Police Department

A handful of recent incidents where police have shot pet dogs in Idaho have angered animal rights advocates. One dog owner in the small town of Filer has issued notice that he intends to sue the city over the death of his dog, Hooch.

It turns out that pet owners have legal recourse in these situations and, in fact, a body of federal court rulings to back them up.

One basis for lawsuits like the one in Filer is the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts have determined dogs are property and killing them may count as unreasonable seizure.

Bellingham-based animal law attorney Adam Karp said judges especially don’t look kindly on police who kill dogs on their home turf or when the owner is present. Karp has handled more than a dozen dog shooting cases in the Northwest, and is one of the attorneys in the Idaho suit.

“There are a number of variables that the courts look to," Karp said. "Like A, are there less lethal alternatives available? B, was it a split-second decision where the officer just had no alternative but to just draw and fire? Or, was there any real threat of injury?”

In a key 2005 ruling in a case brought by the San Jose chapter of the Hell’s Angels, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the Fourth Amendment “forbids the killing of a person’s dog … when that destruction is unnecessary -- i.e., when less intrusive, or less destructive, alternatives exist.”

State laws relating to property theft and infliction of emotional harm can also apply in these cases.

A jury in Spokane recently awarded a man $3,600 for the intrinsic value of his dog, Slyder, who was shot by a Grant County sheriff’s deputy.

A police investigation into the shooting of Hooch concluded it was self-protection, though the investigator also noted the officer could have avoided putting himself in that situation.

On July 9, an incident in Coeur d’Alene lit up social media. A police officer shot a black lab named Arfee in a parked van. He says the dog lunged at him through the open window. And over the Fourth of July weekend, a cop in Nampa shot a dog that was loose in the street and reportedly tried to attack the officer.