According to a recent story on CBS6, an animal control officer in Charles City County, Virginia killed an 18-month-old yellow labrador, Axel, while investigating a neighbor’s complaint. Officer Franklin Bates arrived at Sharon McGein’s home with her neighbor’s 17-year old son, whom Axel had reportedly chased and tried to bite. The teenage neighbor identified Axel as the dog that chased him. Accounts differ as to what happened next. Maybe the dog charged the officer; maybe the officer provoked the dog to bark menacingly. But there is no maybe about what reportedly happened next. Officer Bates shot Axel three times in the face. The dog died.
The County Administrator and the State Police are reportedly investigating whether to file charges.
This incident may also give rise to civil liability. In Altman v. City of High Point, N.C., 330 F.3d 194 (4th Cir. 2003), the Fourth Circuit held that dogs are “effects” protected by the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable seizure. Because shooting and killing a dog is a “seizure” of the dog, the dog’s owner can sue the shooter (and other government defendants as well) under § 1983.
Whether such a suit would succeed depends heavily on the facts of the shooting. In Altman, for example, the panel majority held that the animal control officers were protected by qualified immunity. But that was largely because the dogs “were running at large, uncontrolled and with no owner looking on.” That does not appear to be the case here. And the Altman decision will be treated as having put the government on notice of the potential for liability. Should the case be litigated, the key question will be this: Did Axel pose an imminent danger that justified the officer’s use of deadly force?