When a person is seriously injured by a dog, the dog owner may face legal consequences, potentially leading to criminal prosecution. Before charges are filed, many steps are taken, and the nature of the charges can vary widely, offering different paths towards a criminal conviction.
In many jurisdictions, when someone “brings charges,” they are essentially reporting the incident to the police or sheriff. The officers receive the report, which is then reviewed by a detective. If the detective deems the incident sufficiently serious, they initiate further investigation to determine if there is enough evidence and witnesses to establish the commission of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Periodically, the detectives bring their case files to the local prosecutor’s office, where the files are categorized into 3 groups: cases requiring no action, cases that may be filed at the discretion of the prosecutor, and cases that should definitely be filed. The prosecutors review all three groups, sometimes just two or one, and additional detectives at the prosecutor’s office may conduct their own investigations.
Eventually, the prosecutor decides whether to commence criminal proceedings or not, and it is the prosecutor who ultimately brings the criminal charges, not the reporting person or the police. Furthermore, the prosecutor determines the specific charges, not the reporting person or the police.
In cases involving dogs and dog owners, the officer taking the report could be a sworn police officer or sheriff, depending on who enforces the animal control laws in that jurisdiction. It could be the police or sheriff, the animal control department consisting of sworn animal control officers, a humane society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the animal control department of another jurisdiction.
The officer assesses the case based on the jurisdiction’s “dangerous dog laws,” which define unacceptable dog behavior and establish confinement conditions and the authority to euthanize the dog. If the officer believes the incident to be serious enough, they try to gather sufficient evidence to establish the case by a preponderance of the evidence.
If the evidence appears to be adequate, the officer issues a summons requiring the dog owner to attend a hearing in a “dog court” and present evidence in defense of the dog. The dog owner can avoid the hearing by stipulating that the dog is dangerous and agreeing to the confinement conditions or by surrendering the dog for euthanasia or adoption with the authorities’ consent.
In “dog court,” the animal control officer or police attempt to prove that the dog meets the jurisdiction’s definition of a dangerous dog.
After the prosecution presents its evidence, the dog owner has the right to defend the dog by presenting witnesses, evidence, and arguments that challenge the dog’s classification as dangerous or propose lesser confinement conditions. The book “Defending Your Dog” by Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips provides in-depth insights into this process and is utilized by responsible dog owners to avoid convictions and severe penalties in dog court.
If the dog is determined to be dangerous, the dog owner receives an order to comply with various confinement conditions, maintain specific insurance coverage for the dog, or, in some cases, surrender the dog for euthanasia. The dog owner has limited rights of appeal.
While the “dangerous dog laws” usually do not impose significant criminal penalties on the dog owner, there can be significant criminal consequences if the dog was previously classified as dangerous or if the dog owner violates any of the confinement conditions or fails to surrender the dog for euthanasia.
Alternatively, authorities can choose to criminally prosecute a dog owner under the general criminal laws of the jurisdiction. For example, the person who owns or has custody of the dog at the time of an injury to a person may be charged with offenses such as homicide, assault, or child endangerment, depending on the circumstances. This approach is more common in cases involving serious injuries or the death of a human being.