If your pets cause damage or injuries, what can the law do to you?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Ordinarily, the civil law punishes pet owners by mandating that they pay for medical expenses and damage caused by a pet’s attack, even when it was a friendly attack with unfortunate consequences. Since those financial payments generally resolve the matter sufficiently, people are not often at risk of going to jail because a pet has ruined someone’s things or hurt someone. Unfortunately for poor people, human nature has a desire for revenge and attack victims who cannot collect any money for their suffering might just go to the police for support.

There is a spectrum of mild to drastic criminal charges that the police can use regarding pet attacks. When the attack was connected to violating the leash law or some other local ordinance, the criminal penalty will probably be a ticket.  It would probably be the kind of case that can involve an appearance before a judge, but will not involve a jury trial.

If it appears that the owner ordered the animal to attack the victim, the charge might be something like using the pet as a weapon to commit an assault. That kind of case and the others along this spectrum will be handled with all the formal proceedings of a jury trial. To prove that assault charge, there will have to be eyewitness testimony from people who saw the pet owner give the order or else there has to be background testimony from someone who knows that the animal was trained to attack people. When the prosecutor believes that the pet owner had such a lack of concern for people’s safety that he ignored signs that this kind of attack was likely to happen, the owner can be tried for criminal negligence. In situations when the victim died as a result of the attack, the owner can go on trial for homicide.[i]


[i] A helpful book with chapters about dog bites and dangerous dogs is Mary Randolph, EVERY DOG’S LEGAL GUIDE: A MUST-HAVE BOOK FOR YOUR OWNER, Nolo Press (2007).  See also the free pet law  material from that book’s publisher. http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/dogs-cats-pets/    Summaries of relevant cases and citations to state statutes are in Ward Miller, Modern Status of Rule of Absolute or Strict Liability for Dogbite, 51 American Law Reports 4th 446 (1987-updated to 2006).

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When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Municipal ordinances (source 1source 2) regulate pet licensing as well as pets’ outdoor behavior. In most places, the local animal control authority, a.k.a. “the dogcatcher”, will take away a pet only when it has been found unattended and unleashed walking around on the loose or because it has injured people or other animals. But they can also take pets away if they believe those pets are victims of cruelty or neglect. Keeping pets outside in extreme weather and feeding pets out of garbage cans might both be considered cruel or neglectful treatment.

If you truly are the owner of an animal, as evidenced by a license, you have a constitutional due process right to be informed of where your animal is being held and what you have to do to get that pet released.[i]  Ordinarily, cities have ordinances or animal control authorities have internal rules that dictate how that information is to be conveyed to pet owners. To make a successful due process claim, you have to prove that either the process delineated in the rules or ordinances wasn’t followed or else that the lack of such rules or ordinances denies you due process.

The most common way of tracing an animal’s owner is by using the contact information on the animal’s tag. If the pet owner became homeless after that tag was issued and the contact information no longer leads the shelter or animal control office to the right person, there is not always a second way of trying to track the owner down. Similarly, if the animal does not have identification, like a collar tag or microchip, etc… showing how to contact its owners, the animal control authority generally does not have a legal obligation to try to track down an owner; the resources necessary to reach out into the community trying to find out whether anyone is missing that animal just make it too expensive a practice for the law to make it mandatory.

Although the law does not specifically say so, common sense says that if the tag information is no longer correct or it is possible that the animal’s tag came off or someone in animal control doesn’t do a job right, pet owners have to take responsibility for contacting the local animal shelters when a pet is missing. If you don’t find the pet on your own, you might never get it back; the shelter could let someone adopt your pet or, worse, they might destroy it.

Violating some pet behavior laws will result in fines rather than confiscation of the pet. Failure to clean up after a pet or walking it without a leash or not preventing it from incessantly making noise are likely to result in a fine as penalty. Most of the time, pet owners are notified of these legal violations by getting a ticket, like a traffic ticket, in the mail. But, police officers can simply hand that ticket to someone who does not have a known mailing address. Even if you get a ticket (a.k.a. citation) that does not fully identify you by name and address and even if you cannot pay the fine, you still need to communicate with the animal control authority and possibly your local court, depending on how the pet ordinances are enforced in your town.

If you have not found a way to correct the lack of a leash or loud dog or other problem before going to court, it is appropriate to ask the court for help in obtaining a leash or other equipment that might be too expensive for you and which will put your pet in compliance with the law; sometimes animal courts have relationships with charitable organizations that can help with those sorts of matters. If the court is not able to intervene and help you equip for legal compliance, then ask them for the names of agencies that might help and, at the same time, ask if the court will consider dismissing the ticket against you if you return to court in a week or two with the leash or muzzle or pooper scooper that will prevent the offense from occurring again.


[i] Com. v. Gonzales, 588 A2d. 528, 535; 403 Pa. Super 157, 169 (Pa. Super. 1991); Clark v. Draper, 168 F.3d 1185, 1189-90 (Cir. 10, 1999).

Are you allowed to own pets if you don’t have housing for them?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It is a simple fact of American life that while humans are allowed to walk the streets unaccompanied and without identification, animals cannot. Befriending a bird in the park and involving oneself in that bird’s daily schedule might feel like having a pet, but it is not. Having a pet means being responsible for the animal’s care and safety. In the case of large pets like cats and dogs, not only does this mean feeling internal personal responsibility for feeding and walking a pet, but also having actual legal responsibility for licensing and vaccinating the animal. If an unlicensed animal, or even an untagged animal that is licensed, is captured by municipal authorities, it can be put to death.

Licensing a pet makes owning it legal.[i]  In order to get that license, a pet owner has to pay a fee and give an address where he and the animal live. This doesn’t always mean that by definition a homeless person cannot legally have pets; it can mean that the pet has to be registered to a legitimate address where mailings relating to the pet will be passed along to the homeless owner. This address can be a private home or an organization where the homeless person is known well and maintains regular enough contact to pick up messages.

Your local pet licensing requirements are in your city code.  Find the city code at  http://www.municode.com/library/library.aspx or, if your city is not included there, by linking through the federal government’s roster of cities. http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Local_Government/Cities.shtml.  Looking at your city’s website, you will not only find the code containing ordinances about pet ownership, you will also find the form to submit for that license.


[i] For more information about pet licensing laws, see Margaret C. Jasper, PET LAW, Oceana Press (2007).