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April 26, 2017

COA: A dog’s past general aggression is not enough to sustain criminal charges against owners of a “dangerous animal”

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently clarified the elements of the Michigan “dangerous animal” statute, MCL 287.321 et seq. In the consolidated cases of People v. Ridge, No. 333790 and People v Olney, No. 333791, the prosecution failed to introduce evidence sufficient to show that the dog involved in an attack met the statutory definition of “dangerous animal” or that the owners of the dog, defendants in this case, knew the dog was dangerous within the meaning of the statute.
 
The cases arose out of a dog attack in a residential neighborhood. The defendants owned the dog at issue, a “possible pit bull, Shar-Pei mix” named Roscoe. Roscoe crawled under a fence and attacked the victim, a lawn care employee working in a yard adjacent to defendants’ home. The victim suffered several puncture wounds and bone fractures. The prosecution charged defendants under MCL 287.323(2), which provides:

If an animal that meets the definition of a dangerous animal in [MCL 287.321(a)] attacks a person and causes serious injury other than death, the owner of the animal is guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment for not more than 4 years, a fine of not less than $2,000.00, or community service work for not less than 500 hours, or any combination of these penalties.
MCL 287.321(a) defines “dangerous animal” as “a dog or other animal that bites or attacks a person, or a dog that bites or attacks and causes serious injury or death to another dog while the other dog is on the property or under the control of its owner.”

In order to sustain a conviction under MCL 287.323(2), the prosecution must prove: (1) that the defendant(s) owned or harbored a dog or other animal, (2) that the dog or other animal met the definition of a dangerous animal provided under MCL 287.321(a) before and throughout the incident at issue, (3) that the defendant(s) knew that the dog or other animal met the definition of a dangerous animal within the meaning of MCL 287.321(a) before the incident at issue, and (4) that the animal attacked a person and caused serious injury other than death.

After the preliminary examination, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint. The district court denied the motion and bound the defendants over for trial, reasoning that there was sufficient evidence they knew the dog was dangerous. The circuit court further denied defendants’ motion to quash the bind over. Defendants appealed.
 
On appeal, defendants argued that the prosecution failed to introduce evidence sufficient to find that Roscoe was a dangerous animal as defined by statute or that they were aware he was a dangerous animal. Examining the plain language of the statute, the court determined that an animal is a “dangerous animal” if it: (1) bites or attacks a person or (2) bites or attacks another dog while the other dog is on the property of or under the control of its owner and causes serious injury or death to the other dog. In this case, there was no evidence that Roscoe had previously bit a person; thus, the case turned on whether Roscoe had previously attacked a person. The Court considered substantial evidence that Roscoe had been aggressive and even threatening in the past.  Roscoe’s past behavior included having previously attacked fences and even a lawn mower in the close proximity of people. But, interpreting the plain language of the statute, the Court of Appeals did not find evidence that any of Roscoe’s behavior qualified as having attacked a person.
 
Having failed to introduce sufficient evidence to prove that defendants owned a dangerous animal at the time of the attack in this case or that defendants knew that the animal was dangerous within the meaning of MCL 287.321(a), there was not probable cause sufficient to sustain the criminal charges.

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