Poor quality court opinion regarding police killing of a family pet
Case: POWELL v. JOHNSON (D.Minn. 1-17-2012)
What happened: A policeman went into a plaintiff’s garage because plaintiff’s garage door was open and the policeman wanted to investigate. The plaintiff’s pit bull dog ran, or jogged (depending upon whom you believe), at the policeman, so the policeman shot the pet in the head and killed it.
Decision: No liability for the police because of qualified immunity. Decision seems to say that a police officer can shoot a dog even if the dog is on its own property.
Criticisms: The opinion does not actually specify whether the dog was on its owner’s property or not when it was shot. This is a flaw in the opinion. Even if this fact of the dog’s location were somehow legally irrelevant, then that should have been explained at least because there is a popular perception that a dog is allowed to run around in its own yard without being shot. In a similar vein, the decision does not actually specify whether the policeman was on plaintiff’s property* at the time he decided to shoot. This is another flaw. Again, even if this fact of the policeman’s location were somehow legally irrelevant, then that should have been explained at least because there is a popular perception that people are not allowed to trespass, and then shoot the property owner’s dog if the dog becomes agitated by the trespasser. Finally, and most egregiously, the opinion utterly fails to deal with the issue of whether the policeman had a right to be in plaintiff’s garage in the first place. It is true that the police officer was on an investigation, but, based on the opinion’s selective recitation of facts, it does not seem like there would have been “probable cause” to believe that any of the suspects were in the garage. Assuming no probable cause and no warrant, it is difficult to understand how the policeman could have believed that he had a right to be in the plaintiff’s garage, without a warrant or probable cause or exigent circumstances. As I see it, it was almost certainly the trespassing that was the proximate cause of the pet/guard dog’s death — meaning that the policeman should be liable. His decision to shoot the pet may have been a “split second decision,” but the decision to go into the garage was not a split second decision by any means and should not be treated like one. If there is some theory excusing the policeman’s apparent trespass into the garage then the opinion should have explained that. As it is, the opinion simply seems wrong for failing to consider the Constitutionality of the entry, and instead improperly focusing exclusively on what happened after the dog started his approach.
* As I best understand the recitation of facts in the opinion, both the policeman and the dog were in the garage when the dog was shot to death by the policeman.