At times, law enforcement officers encounter animals that pose a danger to the officers or others and force must be used against the animal. On March 12, 2013, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided Carroll v. County of Monroe et al. [i], which involved the use of deadly force against a dog that threatened officers as they executed a no-knock search warrant. The facts of Carroll, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On October 11, 2006, Deputy Carroll and other officers from the Greater Rochester Area Narcotics Enforcement Team executed a “no-knock” warrant for the plaintiff’s home. A no-knock warrant permits officers to enter a residence without knocking and announcing their presence and is issued when there is reason to believe that the occupants of the residence will, if the officers announce themselves prior to entry, pose a significant threat to officer safety or attempt to destroy evidence. The officers in this case used a battering ram to break through the front door, and Deputy Carroll, who was in charge of securing the entryway, was the first to enter the house. Deputy Carroll immediately saw a dog growling, barking, and quickly and aggressively approaching him. Once the dog had advanced to within a foot of him, Deputy Carroll fired one shot from his shotgun at the animal’s head and killed him. According to Deputy Carroll, the plaintiff was not close enough to the dog to help restrain him from charging at the officers.
Prior to executing the warrant, Sergeant Michael DeSain briefed the team and mentioned that a dog would be present at the plaintiff’s home. The team did not discuss a plan for controlling the dog or formulate a strategy to neutralize any threat the dog might pose by non-lethal means. Additionally, although the County had a written policy prohibiting the use of lethal force against an animal unless the animal posed a danger to officers or other persons, the County did not formally train its officers about how to handle encounters with dogs during searches. The officers testified that they would call animal control to help secure a dog when executing a normal warrant but never planned for non-lethal means to secure a dog during execution of a no-knock warrant.
The officers explained that executing a no-knock warrant requires them to move through the entryway (also called the “fatal funnel”) as quickly as possible to avoid becoming easy targets for armed occupants. In DeSain’s words, the officers “don’t have the time” to use nonlethal means during execution of a no-knock warrant when confronted by a dog in the fatal funnel “because our lives are at risk entering that door.” Moreover, the officers explained that any delay in securing the entryway and moving through the house could facilitate the destruction of evidence. They emphasized, however, that shooting a dog was often unnecessary during execution of a no-knock warrant when, for example, an owner is able to restrain the dog or where the dog runs away, lies down, or poses no threat to officer safety. [ii]
After a jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant county, sheriff’s department and deputy in this case, the plaintiff filed a motion and asked the district court to set aside the jury verdict. The district court denied the motion and the plaintiff appealed to Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue before the Second Circuit was:
Whether, as a matter of law, it was a Fourth Amendment violation to fail to train its officers regarding non-lethal means to secure dogs and to formulate a plan to restrain the plaintiff’s dog using non-lethal means.
At the outset, it is important to note that a party such as the plaintiff here, who seeks to have a jury verdict overturned, must show that there was “no legally sufficient evidentiary basis” for the jury’s verdict. [iii] This is a very high legal standard.
The Second Circuit then examined precedent relevant to the issue in this case. The court first noted that:
As a number of our sister circuits have already concluded, the unreasonable killing of a companion animal constitutes an unconstitutional “seizure” of personal property under the Fourth Amendment. [iv]
The court also noted that there is a balancing of competing interests in determining whether a seizure was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Particularly, the court stated:
To determine whether a seizure is unreasonable, a court must “balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interest alleged to justify the intrusion” and determine whether “the totality of the circumstances justified [the] particular sort of . . . seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8-9, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted). [v]
The court also stated that shooting a person’s dog should be considered a severe intrusion since there is an emotional attachment between a dog and an owner. [vi] Thus, as for the nature of the intrusion, the court will consider it a significant intrusion into a person’s rights.
However, the court further stated that:
[A]t least in some circumstances, it is reasonable for an officer to shoot a dog that he believes poses a threat to his safety or the safety of the community. See, e.g., Altman, 330 F.3d at 205-06; Brown, 269 F.3d at 210-11. [vii]
With the precedent established in this case, the court then set out to apply the rules to the facts of this case. The Second Circuit stated that, based upon the evidence of this case, the plaintiff failed to prove that any pre-planning for the dog or less-lethal means such as pepper spray, TASER or a dog pole would have changed the result in this case since the officer encountered the dog as he was making entry and was in the “fatal funnel” of the doorway. In other words, the court found that even if there was a contingency plan to deal with the dog with less-lethal means, the deputy may have still needed to shoot the dog under the facts of this case.
As such, the Second Circuit affirmed the denial of the plaintiff’s motion and refused to set aside the verdict or grant a new trial.
However, the Second Circuit did offer a word of advice to law enforcement. Particularly, the court stated:
As a cautionary note, however, we do not mean to endorse the defendants’ apparent position that the failure to plan for the known presence of a dog is always acceptable when the police are executing a no-knock warrant. We merely decide that under the particular facts of this case, especially given the high burden that a party must meet to successfully challenge a jury verdict, the jury was not unreasonable to conclude that the plaintiff did not meet her burden of proof. There may very well be circumstances under which a plaintiff could prove that lack of an adequate plan rendered the shooting of his or her dog unreasonable even during execution of a no-knock warrant, and we urge the defendants to consider whether more comprehensive training and planning would better serve the public, as well as its officers, in the future. [viii][emphasis added]
In a footnote, the court also noted that the particular deputy that shot the dog in this case had shot two other dogs while executing search warrants and stated that this:
[I]ndicates that officers in the County encounter these situations more frequently than they would probably prefer and that planning and training—while not always constitutionally required—may be advisable to avoid future tragedies and future litigation. [ix]
As such, it may be advisable for law enforcement agencies to consider training regarding dangerous animals.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 4940 (2nd Cir. March 12, 2013)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 4
[iv] Id. at 5 (See, e.g., Altman v. City of High Point, 330 F.3d 194, 204-05 (4th Cir. 2003); Brown v. Muhlenberg Twp., 269 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2001); Fuller v. Vines, 36 F.3d 65, 68 (9th Cir. 1994), overruled on [*6] other grounds by Robinson v. Solano Cnty., 278 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2002); Lesher v. Reed, 12 F.3d 148, 151 (8th Cir. 1994)
[v] Id. at 5
[vii] Id. at 6-7
[viii] Id. at 11-12
[ix] Id. at fn 2.