Judge stops Detroit’s warrantless searches for dogs

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The city of Detroit is no longer allowed to enter the homes of pet owners without a warrant and seize animals, after a federal judge struck down a portion of the city’s animal control ordinance challenged by residents.

U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds issued her order Monday, saying the city violated the constitutional rights of residents who sued when it acted to take a dog without a warrant, consent or exigent circumstances.

“The public interest is served by an injunction here because it will protect the due process rights of all dog-owning Detroit residents,” Edmunds wrote. “The court has little trouble concluding that the public’s interest under the Fourth Amendment is far greater than any law enforcement objective advanced by the law.”

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ordinance, adopted in 2004, gave 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 sued in November, claiming animal control officers seized dogs, imprisoned the animals in filthy conditions and charged exorbitant fees.

Charles Raimi, deputy corporation counsel for Detroit, has defended the ordinance, saying it’s “a public safety and quality of life issue.”

Raimi had asked Edmunds for time to rewrite the city’s Animal Control Ordinance after she said it lacked constitutional protections. He said 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.

Raimi said the city will comply with the judge’s ruling and is in the process of amending its ordinance.

Jennifer Grieco, who represents residents suing the city, said they were pleased with the judge’s ruling.

“We are very pleased with the result. We knew that we were right on the law and we are pleased that Judge Edmunds did not delay her ruling pursuant to the city’s request,” Grieco and co-counsel Stephen McKenney said in a statement.

“Judge Edmunds issued a strong opinion by not only striking down the (portion of the) Detroit Animal Control code as unconstitutional but also in noting that when the City of Detroit acted to take a dog without a warrant, consent or exigent circumstances, as it did with Floyd Hardrick’s dogs as well as the other plaintiffs’ dogs in our case, it violated our clients’ constitutional rights.”

According to the complaint, Detroit Animal Control officers seized three dogs from Hardrick 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 3 1/2-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.

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.