Detroit rewriting controversial animal ordinance

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Frederick Weems, Jr of Detroit, poses with his dog.

Detroit — Attorneys for Detroit have pledged to rewrite the city’s Animal Control Ordinance after a federal judge said it lacks constitutional protections.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds was poised Wednesday to strike down a section of the ordinance that gives the city, animal control officers and the Detroit Police Department the authority to enter private property without a warrant and seize any animal for any suspected violation of animal control ordinances.

Eleven residents are suing the city claiming animal control officers seized dogs, imprisoned the animals in filthy conditions and charged exorbitant fees.

Charles Raimi, deputy corporation counsel for Detroit, defended the ordinance, adopted in 2004.

“This is a public safety and quality of life issue,” Raimi said.

Edmunds told Raimi it’s well known the city has problems with dogs and there have been horrific attacks on people, including a vicious multiple dog attack that killed 4-year-old Xavier Strickland in Detroit in December.

“But that doesn’t justify a statute that violates the Fourth Amendment,” she said. “Why can’t it be rewritten to require a warrant?”

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Raimi said the ordinance can be re-written and asked Edmunds to stay any order she issues to give the city 30 days to get a new ordinance in place that would require “exigent” circumstances for a search.

Raimi told Edmunds the Animal Control’s new director, Melissa Miller, has drafted a memo that is “ready-to-go” that says exigent circumstances are required to enter private property.

Miller was not immediately available to comment on the memo. Raimi declined a request by The Detroit News for a copy of the memo.

Jennifer Grieco, who represents residents suing the city, argued her focus was challenging the language of the ordinance that allows warrantless searches in private home and on private property with no consent or pressing circumstances.

“This is unique to the city of Detroit and is not patterned after any law,” she said.

As for claims it has to protect citizens, Grieco said the department can still pick up stray dogs it finds on the streets. Blocking the private searches portion of the ordinance, she says, would prevent them from taking dogs without warrants inside homes and on private property.

She also accused the city of trying to hide behind its limited resources and its recent exit from bankruptcy.

“It’s not an excuse to trample Constitutional rights. This doesn’t justify breaking into homes,” Grieco said.

Edmunds delayed her ruling Wednesday and said she would issue a decision next week on the request for a preliminary injunction. The remaining portion of the case is scheduled for trial in November.

After the hearing, Grieco said if the city rewrites the ordinance it has to include the need for a warrant, consent or emergency circumstances to enter someone’s home or property.

In November, a group of residents sued the city, alleging animal control systematically and illegally seized dogs. The city imprisoned the dogs in “filthy, brutal and deplorable conditions” and some dogs died after owners were unable to pay fines and fees, the residents said.

The city’s conduct violated the residents’ due process rights and subjected them to unlawful searches and seizures, according to the lawsuit. The city also intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the residents, according to the lawsuit.

The city, according to its attorneys, uses code enforcement practices to protect the public’s health and safety and to prevent the spread of rabies and other diseases caused by animals.

According to the complaint, Detroit Animal Control officers seized three dogs from Detroiter Floyd Hardrick Jr. on July 13. Officers seized Rocky, Mama and Puppy from his backyard and basement after breaking into the home without a warrant.

Hardrick did not have $390 cash to rescue the dogs from the city shelter. He had $130 — enough money to rescue Rocky after four days.

During its stay at the shelter, the 31/2-year-old dog lost weight and came home with kennel cough, the complaint alleged.

On July 21, four days after returning from the shelter, Rocky died.

“Mr. Hardrick was never able to afford to retrieve Mama and Puppy who were, on information and belief, destroyed,” Grieco wrote.

The residents are seeking unspecified damages, attorney fees and costs.

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