If you rent a storage facility, what kinds of contractual rights and obligations do you have?

Renting a storage facility for your things involves signing a lease, just like renting an apartment. Leases are supposed to state what rights and obligations the owner of the facility and the renter have and what should happen if either of them doesn’t complete the obligations. Typical terms in this kind of lease include: the cost of rent and when it is due, a description of the space available in the rented storage unit, a list of any items that the owner won’t allow to be stored there (explosives, biological hazards, illegal goods, flammable materials…), an explanation of the security deposit, a disclaimer saying that the storage place is not liable for injuries to people who get hurt while storing or removing their things, and the inevitable declaration about what will happen if the rent is not paid.

A lease is a form of contract which means that it is a legally enforceable agreement. Because it is ordinarily fully written when it is presented to the person wanting to rent storage space, rather than being the type of contract that is written by both parties to the agreement who negotiate the terms before writing them down, the renter has very little room to bargain. It is as if the owner of the storage facility is saying, “You can rent a space if you agree to all of these terms.”

If you are not willing to agree to any particular terms that are written on his lease, you have to write that on the document to be signed. To convey definitely that you do not agree to terms, circle or mark out or underline or otherwise note any terms you cannot agree to and state in the margin near each of them that you do not agree to abide by that requirement. Simply telling the facility owner that you do not accept his terms will not protect your interests.  A judge is unlikely to believe that you truly did not agree with the written contract if you read it well enough to discuss unacceptable terms with the owner and then you signed it anyway, without changing the written terms. Remember, of course, that the facility owner does not have to agree to your changes any more than you have to agree to his terms. He has the space you need and he can leave it empty or rent it to someone else if you refuse to use it according to his terms.

Some states have statutes for the sole purpose of backing up self-storage leases. These statutes give the rules for evicting the possessions because there isn’t a human tenant or business to evict from the owner’s premises. One of the standard rules is that the owner of the possessions is supposed to be notified by mail, at the last known address, that the owner of the self-storage place is going to sell the possessions if the owner of those possessions does not pay the past-due rent.

For people without homes, this is a completely ineffective form of notice. In Delaware, the law requires that in addition to mailing that warning, the self-storage place must advertise the warning in the newspaper.[i]  This would not be a big expensive embarrassing ad in the social section; it would be a small cheap formulaic ad buried in the classified section. A person who had missed enough rental payments to be at risk of having his or her possessions sold would either have to read all of the legal notices in the classified ads every day or somehow know exactly when the storage facility happened to be advertising.

In Michigan, instead of requiring the newspaper ad, the law says that owners of self-storage places should mail the warning to the last known address of the possession owner and also, if the renter has provided adequate information, to another person who is likely to know how to locate that person.[ii]   Some of these laws may seem to be insensitive to the difficulties of homeless people, however, if renters have not paid their bill and have not appeared in person or otherwise made themselves available for communication, the law has to protect the other party to the contract who has held up his end of the bargain.


[i] 25 Delaware Code Section 49.

[ii] Michigan Code 570.523 Section 3(4).

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Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?

**** 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. ****

State laws require coroners and medical examiners to investigate unexplained deaths and deaths that are likely to have resulted from a crime (attack, illegal drug use, etc…).[1]  So, if you die outside, in an abandoned building, or at a shelter or anyplace else outside of a hospital without having had a recently treated medical condition, the coroner or medical examiner will have to figure out the cause of your death. This might be a quick death scene evaluation where they can quickly determine that the victim died of exposure or it might be a longer investigation at the coroner or medical examiner’s lab.

In connection with determining the cause of death and issuing a death certificate, the coroner or medical examiner typically has a legal obligation to identify the person who has died.[2]   This might involve going through the decedent’s possessions, accessing police records, tracing dental records, searching through databases of missing persons,[3] tracing DNA…  The state’s “disposition of body” or “vital records/ death certificates” law will likely list some investigative steps for coroners and ME’s needing to identify bodies.  If the law does not list investigative steps, the guidelines for these investigations could arise from coroners’ professional standards published by the state coroners’ or medical examiners’ professional association or else an internal policy manual for the particular county coroner or medical examiner’s office.[4] 

State laws use the phrase “unclaimed dead bodies” to refer to people who have died without identification and whose remains have not been collected by relatives or others prepared to provide for burial or other final disposition.  These laws, which are typically in the statutory code’s “health and safety” category tell when and how to dispose of the unclaimed remains.  Some states require burial or cremation at government expense.[5]  Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body.[6]  Some allow the bodies to be donated for medical research.[7]  Note that medical examiners post information about unclaimed dead bodies in the National Unclaimed Persons Data System. (Note: You have to create a free log-in to use the NamUs database.)
See also the FBI site that lists found remains of missing and unidentified persons.


[1] Find those state laws through Justia, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, or even using a search engine with terms like “California law coroner.”

[2] Sample laws:

Pennsylvania –  35 PS 450.506.1
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no certificate of death or fetal death shall be issued in this Commonwealth if the body or fetal remains have not been positively identified unless the person issuing the certificate of death first obtains a DNA sample and submits the same to the Pennsylvania State Police for storage, for forensic DNA analysis, including nuclear and mitochondrial DNA typing, and for inclusion in any appropriate DNA database…”

Washington –  Rev. C. Wash 43.43.770

“It shall be the duty of the sheriff or director of public safety of every county, or the chief of police of every city or town, or the chief officer of other law enforcement agencies operating within this state, coroners or medical examiners, to record whenever possible the fingerprints and such other identification data as may be useful to establish identity, of all unidentified dead bodies found within their respective jurisdictions, and to furnish to the section all data so obtained. The section shall search its files and otherwise make a reasonable effort to determine the identity of the deceased and notify the contributing agency of the finding.”

South Carolina – Code 1976 17-5-57-
“If the body cannot be identified through reasonable efforts, the coroner must forward the body to the Medical University of South Carolina or other suitable facility for preservation.”

New York  – NY [Executive] Section 838 (McKinney)
“Every county medical examiner shall furnish the division promptly with copies of fingerprints on standardized eight inch by eight inch fingerprint cards, personal descriptions and other identifying data including date and place of death, of all deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry  by the coroner where the deceased is not identified…

[3] Read Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal issue 256 (January 2007) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/jr000256.pdf which is a Department of Justice article about use of the state and federal missing person registries.

[4] These manuals are not easily available. Here are the standards for autopsies. https://netforum.avectra.com/temp/ClientImages/NAME/eed6c85d-5871-4da1-aef3-abfc9bb80b92.pdf  If it isn’t available in your public library or the county law library, you might find excerpts posted on the county medical examiner’s Web site which you can navigate to via http://www.statelocalgov.net/.

[5] Examples:  New York. Social Service Law Section 141; California Health and Safety Code Section 7104; Nevada Revised Statutes Chapter 451.400; DC Code Title 5, Chapter 14, Part 11 (5-14-11); Official Code of Georgia Title 31 Chapter 21.

[6] Examples: Texas Health & Safety Code Section 691.023; Colorado Revised Statutes 12-34-201; Florida Statutes Chapter 406 Part 50.

[7] Examples: Ohio Revised Code 1713.34; Arkansas Code Title 20, Chapter 17, Subchapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.

What legal rights do you have if the police are rough with 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. ****

Police are authorized to use force as necessary to stop and detain a suspect,[i] but if they use excessive force beyond what is needed to control the suspect, they can be found guilty of assault and possibly violating the suspect’s civil rights.[ii] If this happens to you, you can file a complaint with the Department of Justice.

There is not one specific law that declares how much force can be used because the circumstances in which police encounter suspects are so variable. The United Stated Department of Justice has a compilation of definitions about how much police force is permissible.[iii] It quotes the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights saying, “in diffusing situations, apprehending alleged criminals, and protecting themselves and others, officers are legally entitled to use appropriate means, including force.” It also quotes a Bureau of Justice Statistics statement that “the legal test of excessive force…is whether the police officer reasonably believed that such force was necessary to accomplish a legitimate police purpose.” The Department of Justice will also accept and investigate complaints of police misconduct.[iv]

The police officer’s determination about how much force to use is based mainly on the suspect’s behavior.   Sometimes, mentally ill people behave in ways that demonstrate hostility and dangerous unpredicatbility to the police.  Homeless advocates seeking less forceful police handling of mentally ill homeless witnesses, arrestees, and prospective arrestees should read the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s March 2010 report putting forth data and ideas about police interactions with the mentally ill.  The report contains research results and also research questions and policy recommendations for police departments to follow.

Many communities have created citizen police oversight programs that have ordinary local citizens collecting and investigating claims of police misconduct. Four models of programs have been identified:

1. those in which citizen review boards accept and investigate reports from the public
2. those in which the police department takes the complaints and then passes them along to the citizen review committee for further evaluation
3. systems in which the citizen review is only available as an appeal process after the police department has already handled the situation in its own way and
4. those in which complaints are filed with and handled by police departments and then an independent auditor reports to the public about the incidents and how they were handled.[v]

These programs exist with the hope of resolving problems more efficiently than would be possible through litigation. Efficiency means not only rectifying a particular dispute as soon as possible, but also quickly fixing the problem that led to the complaint against an officer. Sometimes the underlying problem is a stressed or violent officer and sometimes the underlying problem is stressed or uncooperative citizens. When the officer is found to be the cause of the problem, his department can retrain, reassign, or otherwise work with him to prevent future incidents that would be similar. When the problem arises from perceptions or behaviors by members of the public, the police department or another unit of the local government can implement a community education program to help avoid recurrences of that kind of problem.

The report that identified the four types of citizen involvement programs also found that victims of harsh police treatment feel validated when citizen review agrees with them and that the victims appreciate that their assistance in fixing a community problem has been valued.[vi]  Additionally, the report notes that police departments and local governments like to solve police misconduct issues using citizen involvement because it “improves their relationship and image with the community”[vii]  and helps them know, earlier than they would otherwise know, how and when officers are getting rough with people which not only stops problems sooner, it also helps them avoid getting sued.[viii]

When somebody does decide to sue the police for using excessive force, the first problem to overcome is the vague notion of how much police can do to physically restrain a suspect. Without a clear legal standard to compare against, plaintiffs have a hard time asserting exactly what was violated. The defending police department can respond by saying that there is no legal basis for the allegation. The next challenge in making a police abuse case is finding a way around sovereign or qualified immunity statutes which protect the government and public employees from being held liable for intentional or negligent harm they might cause while doing their jobs, unless they violate exact statutes or constitutional provisions.[ix]

Generally, in police excessive force cases, instead of suing with a personal injury claim, such as battery or infliction of emotional distress, plaintiffs sue in federal court using a Constitutional law claim. The claim is that an officer who hurts a suspect has committed an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment.[x]  Usually, people think of seizure as a situation when a possession has been taken away. But, in these police excessive force claims, it is dignity and health that have been taken away. The courts have specifically stated that “Where an excessive force claim arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures of the person.”[xi]

When deciding whether the force was excessive, the courts look at three things:

1. how severe the crime was (because the police might need to be more forceful with a violent criminal)
2. whether the suspect is likely to still be dangerous (for example if it is expected that the suspect still has a weapon or if the suspect is loud or aggressive when the police arrive) and
3. whether the suspect is trying to fight with or get away from the police.[xii]

Although torts claims, such as battery, can result in financial awards from the court, constitutional claims can only result in changed behavior. So, in addition to claiming that rough police conduct violates their Fourth Amendment rights, victims also claim that the police conduct violated their civil rights.[xiii]  The federal civil rights statute is Section 1983 within Title 42 of the United States Code.[xiv]  Most people just call it “section 1983.” Under that statute, victims of excessive police force can collect reimbursement for their out-of-pocket costs including medical bills and lost wages and they can also collect punitive damages to make the police department suffer financial punishment for having an officer who hurt somebody.[xv]

The final major challenge in proving that police used excessive force is collecting the necessary evidence. To prove police brutality against one person, the ordinary array of proof such as witness testimony, medically documented physical injuries, and analysis of the officer’s weapons would be used to make the case. But, in class action lawsuits against police departments, it is necessary to prove patterns of police misconduct by showing who tends to get rough and when that has happened in the past. The ACLU recommends that litigants investigate how often police on that force fire their guns or use their clubs and that litigants then analyze that data to see whether particular officers use weapons more than others. They also suggest looking at the age and race of the officers who use their weapons the most compared to the races and other characteristics of their victims.[xvi]


[i] Model Penal Code §3.07(1) Use of Force Justifiable to Effect an Arrest, §3.07(2) Limitations on Use of Force §3.07(3) Use of Force to Prevent Escape from Custody §3.07(5) Use of Force to Prevent Suicide or the Commission of a Crime.[ii] Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 101 S.Ct. 2587 (1981). See generally, Linda J. Collier and Deborah D. Rosenbloom, Arrest, 5 Am.Jur.2d. §145 (2006).

[iii] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Use of Force Data is available at https://ucr.fbi.gov/use-of-force.

[iv] The U.S. Department of Justice has a full explanation of the federal laws against police misconduct and instructions for filing a complaint. See United States Department of Justice, Addressing Police Misconduct, https://www.justice.gov/crt/addressing-police-misconduct-laws-enforced-department-justice.

[v] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement: A Review of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Various Models is available at https://www.ojpdiagnosticcenter.org/sites/default/files/NACOLE_Civilian_Oversight.pdf.

[vi] Id. at p.10.

[vii] Id. at p.11.

[viii] Id.

[ix] There are thousands of state and federal court cases about qualified immunity. Some of the prominent U.S. Supreme Court cases include Saucier v. Katz, 533, U.S. 94; 121 S. Ct. (2001) (A police officer who quickly pushed a political demonstrator into a police van was entitled to qualified immunity because his need to act speedily to protect the Vice President from this uncooperative and potentially dangerous demonstrator was reasonable.) Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800; 102 S.Ct. 2727 (1982). (Citizens’ rights to collect damages must be weighed against the rights of public officials who constantly bear the risky responsibilities of relying on their discretion in performing public duties.) Wilson v. Lane, 526 U.S. 603; 119 S.Ct. 1692 (1999). (A defense of qualified immunity from having to pay damages is available to public officials who have not violated a particular law and were simply trying to do their work. So, when there was not established caselaw declaring that bringing news reporters to an arrest would violate the Fourth Amendment, police were granted qualified immunity from having to pay damages to the family whose home was filmed during the arrest.)

[x] U.S. Constitution Amendment IV. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

[xi] Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). See also Jones v. Philadelphia, 890 A.2d 1188 (Pa. Comm. 2006) and Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 843; 118 S.Ct. 1708, 1715 (1998).

[xii] Graham v. Connor at 396; St. John v. Hickey, 411 F.3d 762,771 (6th Cir., 2005); Payne v. Pauley 337 F.3d 767, 778 (7th. Cir. 2003)

[xiii] Glenda K. Harnud, et al, Civil Rights: Excessive Use of Force 14 CJS §140

[xiv] 42 U.S.C. §1983. “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law…”

[xv] Wagner v. Memphis, 971 F.Supp. 308 (W.D Tenn. 1997); Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 103 S.Ct. 1625 (1983); Newport v. Fact Concerts, 453 U.S. 257, 101 S. Ct. 2748 (1981).

[xvi] The ACLU’s Fighting Police Abuse: Community Action Manual is available for free online at http://www.aclu.org/police/gen/14614pub19971201.html. The section titled “Gather the Facts” has the suggestions mentioned here.

If you lost your home because of a tax lien or other tax matter, and the tax authority collected the debt by selling your home, there might be leftover profit from that sale that you are entitled to. How can you collect that if you don’t have an address?

**** 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. ****

Property tax sales are generally conducted by the municipal or county governments that collect property taxes. This means that it is necessary to look in the municipal or county code to find the rules about when and how properties will be sold to pay-off a property tax debt.[i] The phrase “tax sale excess proceeds” will likely be the heading for the rules section about money owed to the homeowner after the house is sold to pay the tax debt.

The rules will establish a schedule for property tax sales. Perhaps the town or county only has one property tax sale every quarter. Maybe property tax sales occur on the last Friday of the month. Usually, the schedules establish a short enough time within which to sell the home that the person who lost the home can still be located. Knowing that there is likely to be money coming from the sale of his home, a newly homeless person must remain in contact with the agency (probably the sheriff’s department) selling the house.

Note that even though this question is about losing a house because of a tax debt, the same legal analysis works with any debt in which a house was collateral. If the house is taken away to pay debt and is then sold by the creditor for more than the amount of money owed, the debtor is supposed to get the leftover money. The legal right to collect those proceeds does not always come from any particular law. It is a simple common law principle of debt law that the creditor is only entitled to the amount he is owed.[ii] Some states might have this principle included in their statutes. Some agencies such as state departments of revenue or banking might include it in their separate regulations. Whether it is written in the law or not, this principle still holds true.

In the hassle and confusion of losing the house and trying to get re-established elsewhere while dealing with the financial papers and tumult, anyone might lose track of procedures. It is easy to understand how someone in these circumstances might not recall who to go to for a refund. In most states, the treasurer’s office keeps track of “unclaimed property” – a fancy way of saying money that rightfully belongs to citizens whom the government cannot locate.[iii]

“Unclaimed property” might be these excess proceeds from creditor house sales, unclaimed stocks, old certificates of deposit, neglected bank accounts, money from insurance policies, and more. Anyone who can use the Internet can search the state treasurer’s unclaimed property database.  A claimant can write a letter to the state treasurer instead filing a claim online. State agencies do understand that for many people the Internet is hard to use or is not available

In many states, simply finding the unclaimed property listing on the Internet is only the first step toward getting it back. There is usually a form to submit, a signature to be notarized, and that ever challenging proof of identity. As in dealings with the federal agencies, it is generally feasible for a homeless person dealing with the state treasurer’s office of unclaimed property, to either use a street address where he doesn’t live but can receive mail or to prove his identity with the help of social service agencies where he is known as a client.


[i] Here are some examples of tax office notices to homeowners whose houses are sold to pay off tax debts:
– Brazoria County, Texas

The sale of property for delinquent taxes may generate excess funds over and above the amount of judgment.  These funds must be turned over to the clerk of the court issuing the order of sale for safekeeping.  The retention period is two years from the date of sale.

Once the District Clerk’s Office receives the excess proceeds from a tax sale, a certified letter will be sent to the defendant within 31 days of receipt. To release the money, we must have a court order signed and dated by the presiding judge. The payor’s name, address, the amount of money as well as the person to whom the check is to be made payable must also be provided within the order.
http://www.brazoria-county.com/dclerk/AccountingRegistry.asp
Sierra County, California
“If the property is sold, lien holders and the former owner may claim proceeds in excess of the taxes and costs of the sale.”   http://www.sierracounty.ws/county_docs/collector/faq2012.pdf
Alaska
“If the proceeds of the sale of tax-foreclosed property exceed the total of unpaid and delinquent taxes, penalty, interest, and costs, the municipality shall provide the former owner of the property written notice advising of the amount of the excess and the manner in which a claim for the balance of the proceeds may be submitted. Notice is sufficient under this subsection if mailed to the former record owner at the last address of record of the former record owner.” Title 29 Alaska Statutes Chapter 45 Section 480.
http://touchngo.com/lglcntr/akstats/Statutes/Title29/Chapter45/Section480.htm (Site not published by the state of Alaska.)

[ii] Dan B. Dobbs, LAW OF REMEDIES- DAMAGES, EQUITY, RESTITUTION§4.1 (West, 1995)

[iii] State unclaimed property offices are listed at http://www.unclaimed.org/. (Enter as an “owner.)The federal unclaimed property office (where you can find out about pension funds, mortgage interest refunds, etc…) is at http://fms.treas.gov/faq/unclaimed.html.

If you earned money this year, but you don’t have an address to put on the tax return, do you still have to pay the taxes?

**** 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. ****

Basically, anyone who earns more than about $3,000 (married filing separately) or $9,000 (single)[i] during one year in the United States has to pay income tax whether he has an address or not. People can definitely earn enough money to owe income tax even though they cannot afford housing. Day laborers can certainly earn more than a few thousand dollars  in a year. Trust funds can pay someone more than the minimum taxable amount in a year.

An interesting definition relevant to the beginning of the tax return might cause a homeless person to think that income tax returns do not apply to them. While in most encounters with the Internal Revenue Service, people are referred to as “taxpayers,” the income tax returns refer to the person responsible for the form as “head of household”– defined in the tax code as someone who “maintains as his home a household which constitutes for more than one-half of such taxable year the principal place of abode, maintaining the household during the taxable year is furnished by such individual.”[ii] This definition is only meant to distinguish between the tax liabilities of people paying for the household and the people who are dependant on the ones paying for the household, not to exempt people living without a household. There is no section of the tax code establishing that a household has to be a set location, certainly not one with an address.

The first equation taxpayers figure for their tax returns is the amount of gross income which the IRS defines as “all income from any source.”[iii] Gross income includes money in hand as well as interest on financial accounts, prizes, and possibly Social Security payments- depending on the taxpayer’s circumstances. Generally, Social Security payments are not taxed if they are the only source of income. But, if the taxpayer owes taxes from previous years, Social Security payments can be garnished to pay off that tax debt.[iv]


[i] Internal Revenue Service filing requirements as described in the IRS chart of Filing Requirements for most taxpayers.  http://www.irs.gov/publications/p501/ar01.html#en_US_2010_publink1000220675

[ii] 26 CFR Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 1, §2(b)(1)(a).

[iii] 26 CFR Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter B Part 1, §61(a).

[iv] For a general discussion of this, see Tax Topics – Topic 423 http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc423.html. For full details see IRS Publication 915 regarding Social Security and Railroad Retirement Benefits http://www.irs.gov/publications/p915/index.html.

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).

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).