MHS advocates for humans and animals through its law enforcement training program. And when a court misinterprets Michigan law in a case involving animals and law enforcement, MHS advocates for a correct interpretation.
In January 2015, MHS began developing a training program to help first responders handle animal encounters. To carry out their duties and protect the public and animals, it is critical for officers to receive training designed to teach them Michigan animal law, enable them to quickly interpret animal behavior in face-to-face interactions, and make them aware of the issues that may arise in investigations involving crimes against animals.
With the growing number of animals in our communities, officers will encounter animals with increasing frequency. However, most officers are not trained beyond the potential need to use deadly force when encountering animals.
MHS launched its training program in June 2015 and has trained hundreds of officers. Our goal is to provide officers with options and strategies to keep themselves and the humans and animals in their communities safe, leaving the use of deadly force as a last resort.
Sadly, there are times when officers are faced with extremely aggressive animals and have no other option other than to respond in kind to protect humans. However, our legal system is one of checks and balances, and if an animal owner believes that an officer has acted unreasonably in shooting his or her animal, there is a potential legal remedy.
The Fourth Amendment protects us from unlawful government seizures of our property. In the U.S., animals are legally considered property. An owner who believes that his or her dog was “seized” (shot and injured or killed) unreasonably can bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and allege violation of his or her civil rights. While officers who acted reasonably are protected by qualified immunity, if the court decides that the police did not act reasonably, the plaintiffs can receive substantial damages.
The facts in one such case occurred in January 2016, when five Detroit police officers and one sergeant conducted a drug raid on a house in Detroit. The house was occupied by Nikita Smith and Kevin Thomas, who were squatting in the residence. There were three large dogs in the house with them. The dogs were not licensed. In executing the raid, the police shot and killed all three dogs.
Smith and Thomas sued in federal district (trial) court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the unlawful seizure of their dogs under the Fourth Amendment. The officers brought a motion for summary judgment – essentially, a motion to have the case dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to make their case. The officers’ most legally significant argument was that Smith and Thomas did not have a property interest in their dogs because they were unlicensed in violation of Michigan and Detroit law.
The court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment and held that Smith and Thomas did not have a legal property interest in their unlicensed dogs.
Smith and Thomas have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The appellate court will often accept “amicus briefs” from experts with an interest in the legal issues in the case. These briefs can assist the court in weighing the various legal arguments.
Prof. David Favre, a national animal and property law expert on the MSU College of Law faculty, filed an amicus brief in this case. He invited MHS to join the brief. The parties to an amicus brief are required to provide a “statement of interest.” The MHS statement of interest reads in part:
While MHS expresses no opinion regarding whether the killing of the dogs in this case was justified, MHS strenuously objects to the court’s decision to grant defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the court’s legal conclusion that the plaintiffs did not have a possessory interest in their unlicensed dogs to support a claim for relief under
42 U.S.C. § 1983. MHS is gravely concerned that the decision in this case could negatively impact the human-animal bond by calling into question the fundamental principle of animals as property and an owner’s right to a legally-protected interest in that property. The property law protections afforded to animals and their owners are already perceived as insufficient by pet owners who view their pets as family members, and to deny even those most basic protections as this court did could have unintended consequences that extend far beyond this case.
You can read the entire amicus brief here. We are hopeful that the appellate court will reverse the trial court’s novel interpretation of Michigan law. And we will continue to train as many officers as we can to try to ensure human and animal safety.