The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently reversed a summary judgment in favor of a police officer who had been sued for an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment arising out of an incident that had resulted in the shooting death of a pet dog.  According to the appellate court, the conflicting accounts of what happened could only be resolved by a jury.  Ray v. Roane, No. 22-2120 (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2024).

The case arose out of police officers’ attempt to serve an arrest warrant on plaintiff.  Plaintiff’s dog, a 150-pound German shepherd named “Jax,” allegedly lunged at defendant, one of the officers, who thereupon shot the dog in the head and killed him.  Plaintiff’s original complaint had been dismissed, but the appellate court reversed on the ground that plaintiff had pleaded sufficient facts to make it plausible that defendant did not reasonably perceive the dog as a threat.  On remand, the case proceeded through discovery at which point the district court granted summary judgment for the defendant.  However, the Fourth Circuit found that the conflicting accounts of what had transpired required a trial.

According to the plaintiff’s witnesses, Jax was tethered to a “zip line.”  When defendant arrived at the property and attempted to serve the warrant, Jax approached, barking, and the defendant back-pedaled but ultimately stopped when it was clear that Jax had reached the end of his tether.  At that point, defendant took one step forward and shot the dog.  According to plaintiff, this made the shooting unreasonable and therefore a violation of clearly established Fourth Amendment law.  Defendant’s witnesses, however, testified that defendant was back-pedaling the entire time until the moment of the shooting and did not take a step forward.  According to defendant, this corroborated his testimony that he was unaware that the dog was tethered.  The district court found that no witness contradicted the defendant’s account of defendant’s view point, but the court of appeals disagreed:  “It is time for that dispute to go to a jury for resolution.” Slip. op. at 12.

The case is a rather unexceptional application of federal court summary judgment principles.  However, it is an important reminder that there is a well-developed body of case law that recognizes that the concept of unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment extends to animals – and to pets in particular.  As the court observed (harking back to its decision reversing the granting of the motion to dismiss):

[T]he Fourth Amendment protects the interest of individuals in dogs they keep as pets.  . . . To assess the constitutionality of a shooting of a family dog, we “balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” . . .  Both sides have strong interests:  the individual in “Man’s Best Friend” . . .  and the government “in protecting citizens and officers from dogs that may be dangerous or otherwise a source of public nuisance.” . . .  And in weighing the government’s side of the balance, we recognized, we must account for the officer’s need “to make split-second judgments,” and consider “only the information known” to the officer “at the time of the shooting.”  [Slip op. at 5 (quoting and citing Altman v. City of High Point, 330 F.3d 194 (4th Cir. 2003).]

Thus, if a reasonable officer would have believed that shooting the dog was necessary to protect officer safety, then the Fourth Amendment would permit the shooting.  If not, the shooting would violate the Fourth Amendment.