The government has broad powers to pick up, impound, and destroy dogs when the animals are a threat or their owners have violated animal laws, from leash requirements to bans on animal cruelty and keeping dangerous dogs. Still, there are limits on those powers. Whenever police, animal control officers, or other government officials seize or kill a dog, they must respect the owners’ constitutional rights.
State laws and local ordinances spell out when officers (and occasionally humane society agents) may take possession of dogs and put them in the pound or shelter. Those circumstances include:
Officials may generally pick up any dogs that are running loose and out of their owners’ sight, but specific requirements may vary. In many states, authorities are required to seize unlicensed, loose dogs. In New York, officers must impound any unlicensed dogs—whether on or off their owners’ property—as well as licensed dogs that are running loose and appear dangerous, and any dog that poses an immediate threat (N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 117). In Minnesota, anyone can seize an unlicensed, loose dog and turn it over to a shelter (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 347.14).
After a dog is impounded, authorities should at least try to contact the owner before they get rid of the animals by adopting them out, euthanizing them, or selling them to research facilities (where that’s allowed). Often, it’s only a matter of a few days before shelters are allowed dispose of unclaimed strays.
Owners usually have to pay a fine to reclaim their dogs. The fine is usually minimal, but it can be expensive in some states.
Of course, if your dog is picked up and impounded without a license tag or some other identification, shelter employees won’t have any practical way to identify and notify you (other than by publishing a notice with a description of the dog). Unless you manage to find your lost pet in time—usually by calling or going to all of the shelters in your area—you’ll be out of luck. If your dog has been adopted rather than euthanized, you still may not be able to get it back. In a Georgia case, for example, a purebred dog was picked up wandering without a license or vaccination tag. The shelter kept it for nine days and then placed it for adoption. When the owner finally found out, he sued the shelter in an effort to get the dog back or get compensation for its value. The court threw out his lawsuit, finding that the shelter had properly used its power to dispose of stray dogs. (Johnston v. Atlanta Humane Soc., 326 S.E.2d 585 (Ga. Ct. App. 1985).)
Depending on whether an impounded dog has a license, some states have different minimums for the amount of time the shelter must keep the animal before getting rid of it. In Oregon, for instance, licensed dogs must be kept at least five days, while dogs without a license or ID tag only have to be kept two days (Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 609.090).
What if officers can’t catch a loose dog? If it doesn’t have a license tag, some states authorize officers to kill the animal (see, for example, Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 258.215). In Kentucky and elsewhere, officers are also allowed to kill any loose dogs that pose a risk to safety.
State animal cruelty laws generally give officials the authority to take control of mistreated or neglected dogs. Typically, animal control officers need to apply for a warrant first, but some state laws allow seizures without warrants when the officers have probable cause or even reasonable cause to believe that the animals are in immediate danger of harm. Either way, the owner should be notified of the seizure and should have the chance to fight the charges at a hearing. If the court orders temporary custody of the animal during the criminal proceedings, the owner will usually have to pay a bond to cover the costs of taking care of the dog. In certain states, someone who’s found guilty of animal cruelty will automatically lose ownership of the dog (see, for example, Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 4, § 512).
Under the dangerous-dog laws in many states, animal control officers may also impound a dog during proceedings to decide if it’s a risk to the public because of its history of biting or attacking people (or sometimes other dogs). These laws usually include provisions for ordering dangerous dogs euthanized in certain circumstances.
Because animals are considered property under the law, their owners have certain constitutional rights before they’re taken away: the right to due process under the 14th Amendment, as well as a right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th Amendment. In general, that means that government shouldn’t take animals away from their owners without probable cause, and owners have the right to be notified when their dogs could be or already have been seized, as well as before the animals are euthanized. Owners also are entitled to a fair hearing where they can present their side of the story and try to get the dog back.
When government seizes or kills dogs without providing these constitutional rights, owners may be able to sue for violations of their constitutional rights. In a New York case, authorities took a dog into custody after it attacked another dog. Almost immediately following a dangerous-dog hearing, the hearing officer ordered the animal euthanized. But the owner learned of that decision in a phone call just before his dog was killed, and his attorney didn’t receive official notice until three days later. The owner sued the city, and a federal court found that officials had violated his rights to due process and against unreasonable seizure. Besides the late notice, the court noted that the hearing officer hadn’t stated the reasons for the decision or the evidence supporting it, and the owner didn’t have a reasonable amount of time to appeal the decision. (Van Patten v. City of Binghamton, 137 F.Supp.2d 98 (N.D. N.Y. 2001).)
In another case where authorities ordered a dangerous dog killed, the Nebraska Supreme Court found that the order wasn’t reasonable, because the owners had taken extraordinary steps (including installing a $20,000 six-foot-high fence) to prevent the dog from escaping the yard and hurting anyone (State v. Lesoing-Dittoe, 693 N.W.2d 261 (Neb. 2005)).
When law enforcement officers come to a home to make an arrest or investigate a report of criminal activity, they often shoot dogs that are defending their territory by lunging at the officers or just barking aggressively. In these situations, courts have consistently found that the dog owners have a constitutional right not to have their animals killed unreasonably, because that’s a form of unreasonable seizure.
But what’s unreasonable? Many courts have found that killing a dog is reasonable only if it’s unavoidable and the animal poses an immediate danger to the police officer (see Robinson v. Pessat, 818 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir 2016)). In practice, judges tend to side with the judgment calls that law enforcement officers make. As a federal appellate court pointed out, police officers often have to make split-second decisions about whether it’s necessary to shoot a dog. In that case, officers killed two pit bulls during a drug raid. The officers testified that the dogs were barking aggressively, and one of them lunged at the officers when they entered the house. (Brown v. Battle Creek Police Dept., 844 F.3d 556 (6th Cir. 2016).)
In contrast, another federal court found that police officers violated dog owners’ Fourth Amendment rights by shooting their dogs, who were growling and advancing as the officers entered two different properties. The court found that the killing wasn’t necessary, because officers hadn’t made any plan for dealing with the animals other than shooting them, even though they had known for a week that there were guard dogs at the properties. Also, the officers didn’t even try to use pepper spray to subdue the animals. (San Jose Charter of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose, 402 F.3d 962 (9th Cir. 2005).)
If you believe government officials broke the law or violated your rights when they seized or killed your dog, it would be a good idea to speak with a lawyer. An attorney experienced in civil rights law can explain how local laws and court decisions apply to your situation, as well as special requirements for filing claims against government agencies or suing the government for civil rights violations.