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People v. Ridge: What is a Dangerous Animal?

April 25, 2017 Criminal Law and Procedure

The Court of Appeals in People v. Ridge discusses the elements of owning a dangerous animal causing serious injury.

The Facts

In this case, the defendants were charged with owning a dangerous animal causing serious injury. The defendants owned a dog that was (at best guess) half pit-bull and half shar-pei. The dog’s name was Roscoe.

Before the incident leading to arrest, Roscoe had been seen biting the tires of a lawn mower and scaring the neighbors. The dog had never been seen biting or attacking a person. There was evidence that Roscoe’s owners had considered putting the dog in a shelter at some point.

The allegation were that Roscoe had wiggled under a fence and bit the neighbor. The defendants were then charged with the instant offense, which is a four-year felony.

The defendants were bound over after a preliminary exam. Defense counsel then filed a motion to quash, which the circuit court denied. The defendants then appealed, and the Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case.

The Statutes

The defendants were charged under statute MCL 287.323(3), which provides that an owner of a dangerous animal is guilty if the animal attacks a person and cause serious injury other than death.

A dangerous animal is a 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 control of the owner. MCL 287.321.

The Court’s Analysis

The district court judge who presided over the preliminary examination believed there was enough evidence to justify the case moving forward to trial. Specifically, the judge found the “defendants were aware that the dog had scared people and had an aggressive disposition. The dog had exhibited aggressive behavior, such as barking, running up and down the fence, making noise, biting…lawnmowers, tires and damaging the tire prior to the incident in question.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court and circuit court rulings.

On appeal, the defense had two arguments. The defense first argued that there was no evidence showing the defendants had owned a dangerous animal under the statute. The defense also argued  there was no evidence the defendants were aware they owned a dangerous animal under the statute.

The Court had previously addressed the question of what makes a dangerous animal in People v. Janes. In that case, the Court held that “the statute requires proof that the owner knew that his or her animal was a dangerous animal within the meaning of the dangerous animal statute before the incident at issue.”

A person is not guilty under the law if there was no prior knowledge the animal was dangerous.

The Court ruled the prosecution has to prove several elements to convict someone under MCL 287.323:

  1. The defendant owned an animal, and
  2. The animal was dangerous as defined under MCL 287.321(a) before and through the incident at issue, and
  3. The defendant knew the animal was dangerous before the incident, and
  4. The animal attacked a person causing serious injury or death.

What is a Dangerous Animal?

The question in this case centered on whether Roscoe was a dangerous animal. The case of People v. Jane went on to describe what animals would not qualify as a dangerous animal:

  1. An animal that bites or attacks a person who is knowingly trespassing on the property of the animal’s owner.
  2. An animal that bites or attacks a person who provokes or torments the animal.
  3. An animal that is responding in a manner that an ordinary and reasonable person would conclude was designed to protect a person if that person is engaged in a lawful activity or is the subject of an assault.
  4. Livestock.

In This Case

Roscoe was not an animal that would qualify under any of the exceptions listed above. There was also no evidence that Roscoe ever bit another dog.

Therefore, the question for the Court was whether Roscoe had ever bit or attacked a person. The Court pointed out that a dog or animal could be a dangerous animal if it had ever bit or attacked a person. Roscoe had never bitten a person.

So the Court concluded the case turned on whether there was evidence that Roscoe had ever attacked a person and whether defendants knew about it. The Court used the dictionary to define attack as “to set upon or work against forcefully.”

While Roscoe had been forceful against objects such as the fence and lawnmower tires, there was no evidence he ever attacked a person. Attacking an object is insufficient for the dangerous animal statute.

Evidence that a dog is threatening or scary is insufficient to be defined as a dangerous animal. The Court said that to broaden the definition to aggressive or threatening behavior would broaden the statute. The district court judge based the ruling on the dog’s aggressive or threatening behavior, not on evidence that Roscoe had attacked or bit a person.

The Court ultimately ruled that Roscoe was not a dangerous animal.

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Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.

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At ArborYpsi Law, we have experience representing people on a variety of charges, from drug dealing to DUI, from animal cruelty to assault. Call us to see how we can help you in your criminal case. We are ready to help whether the case must be challenged or if you need help getting things together for a plea resolution.

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