A dispute about a dog that bit a cat is now at Iowa’s Supreme Court and it addresses an important question about how municipalities can regulate dog breeds deemed as dangerous.
In Helmers v. City of Des Moines, Dianna Helmers, the dog’s current custodian, and the city, which wants its dog laws upheld by the court, aren’t the original characters in the case. The first conflict involved a March 2016 fight between Pinky the dog and Ranger the cat. On Tuesday, the Iowa Supreme Court received briefs from attorneys that started with the incident.
While there were no apparent witnesses to what started the fight between animals that fled their owners’ houses, Pinky was found with Ranger in her mouth. Both animals had injuries and Ranger required multiple stitches. Animal-control officials seized Pinky; the dog remained in city custody for two years after Des Moines wanted Pinky destroyed as a “dangerous animal.”
In April 2018, an Iowa appeals court ruled that Des Moines’ dangerous-animal ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and it ordered Pinky released to Helmers, who had fought for Pinky’s freedom after her original owner had surrendered custody to the city.
The appeals court split 3-2 on the case as it debated federal and state constitutional issues related to the city’s powers to regulate property, such as dogs, using its local laws. (Legally in Iowa, dogs are considered as property and not as sentient beings.) Judge Mary Tabor’s majority opinion said the law was vague because it depended on a definition of “vicious propensities” exhibited by an animal. “Even our shiniest judicial gloss cannot provide adequate notice to dog owners regarding what conduct would show ‘vicious propensities’ when a previously well-behaved dog faces off against a provocative animal running at large,” Tabor said.
In its appeal to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, Des Moines disputed that Pinky was misclassified as vicious, since Pinky was found in 2010 to have the characteristics of a pit bull breed and subject to the city’s definition as a “high risk dog.” In addition, Pinky was unlicensed, had escaped from its owners, and injured another animal. “Pinky was properly designated a dangerous animal under the City’s ordinance and the district court’s decision should be affirmed,” it concluded.
In turn, Helmers’ attorneys said Pinky was improperly seized, violating its then-owner’s Fourth Amendment property rights as well as an Iowa constitutional provision that provides for voluntary consent for searches. They also said the law’s vagueness violates the property owner’s due process rights under the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
“The City will always be able to seize and confine a family pet any time the chief humane officer decides to declare it ‘dangerous’ by taking that animal from its home without consent, holding it in quarantine, issuing a dangerous dog declaration while the animal is in quarantine, and then refusing to release it,” they argued.
The case is being watched elsewhere in Iowa. In August, a judge in Japser County said its vicious animal ordinance was unconstitutional based on the ruling in the Des Moines case.
According to Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal and Historical Center, 39 states and numerous municipalities have ordinances that regulate dogs “believed to exhibit or engage in violent behaviors.”
The Animal Legal and Historical Center says that Fifth and 14th Amendment due process questions often pose the “biggest litigation concerns” in conflicts between dog owners and government officials, including cases about hearing notices sent to dog owners and the “failure to provide guidelines or specific findings to declare a dog as dangerous.”
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.